Almost three years ago the Israeli navy raided a flotilla bound for the besieged Gaza Strip, killing nine passengers on board Turkish vessel the Mavi Marmara. Since then, Turkey has demanded that Israel issue a formal apology before it would resume diplomatic relations.
On 22 March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and finally apologized “for the operational mistakes” during the raid. Netanyahu’s call came at the end of US President Barack Obama’s state visit to Israel, and demonstrated Washington’s role in resolving the dispute.
There is no doubt that Israel’s apology is an important achievement for Turkish diplomacy. It will strengthen Turkey’s position in the region and add to Erdoğan’s popularity both in Turkey and abroad. The timing of the apology is especially important since Turkish foreign policy has been faltering in the last two years.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero conflict” policy with Turkey’s neighbors has gone almost in the opposite direction as Turkey faced serious tensions with most of its neighbors in the east. The ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) policy was severely criticized for its impatience and vigilance toward the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its less than cautious support for the Syrian rebels.
Furthermore, the apology came soon after another even more fundamental development — the prospect of a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels. It can even be argued that the Israeli apology would have been turned into a bigger showcase for internal politics had it not been for the attention paid to the negotiations between Ankara and the Kurdish representatives.
But the combined effect of these developments has the potential to increase Turkey’s leverage and autonomy in foreign policy decisions. It also raises a series of questions about the dynamics of Israel’s apology.
First is the immediate context of the apology. Contrary to some depictions in the Turkish press, the apology did not come as a surprise — it was two years in the making. Indeed, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu stated on several different occasions that diplomats from both sides were working on the text of an apology that would restore diplomatic relations.
Ankara had put forward five conditions after the raid: the formation of an independent committee to investigate the incident; the returning of the vessels held by Israel to Turkey; an official apology; reparations to the families of the activists who were killed; and the lifting of the blockade on Gaza.
The mainstream media in Turkey, interpreting the developments between the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara and the apology, has written in a triumphant manner that Israel had already met the first two of these conditions. However, as critics have pointed out, it is highly doubtful that the Israeli government-sponsored Turkel Commission was truly independent. As is well known, the commission “cleared the [Israeli] government and military of wrongdoing” in their report released in January 2011.
Nevertheless, the apology and the reparations were part of the same negotiation process. As the siege of Gaza remains in place, Turkey’s main achievement is that it stood its ground and was able to exert pressure on the Israeli government, risking its relationship with the US’ strongest ally in the region.
Second, the apology was brokered by Washington. For the long-term interests of the US in the region, the stability of Turkish-Israeli relations have always been crucial and the restoration of their diplomatic ties can be seen as one of the first foreign policy achievements of Obama’s second term. Whether the restoration of relations will be long-lasting or not is uncertain, but there is no doubt the US will benefit from the apology.
The third dimension of the immediate context of the apology has to do with Israeli internal politics. Most observers were quick to point out that with the formation of a new cabinet after recent Israeli elections, Netanyahu had a freer hand to express an apology. Without the uncompromising ultra-right-winger Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu could at least compromise to some extent in his foreign policy.
Syria is also definitely a factor. The uncertainty of Syria’s future poses a serious threat to both Turkey and Israel. While Turkey hopes to exert a direct influence on the outcome and form alliances with different groups in a future government without Assad, Israel seeks to minimize the uncertainty that a future government will bring.
The fact that Iran and Hizballah have been criticizing Turkey’s involvement in Syria brings Turkey closer to Israel in terms of the positions taken vis-à-vis the Assad regime. But the Syria factor does not seem to explain the timing of the apology; it is not clear which factors may have triggered or facilitated the restoration of ties.
A new chapter?
Another set of questions concerns the long and medium-term relations between Israel and Turkey: to what extent is this apology a new chapter? Did the AKP’s foreign policy toward Israel really represent a radical departure from previous governments’ foreign policies?
Despite the ups and downs, it is difficult to demonstrate that Israeli-Turkish relations were subject to fundamental change during the AKP’s rule. True, Israel must be longing for the intimacy of the 1990s when military rationale dictated the course and content of the relationship. The close cooperation between the military and the intelligence services has not been a secret, and the stability of the relationship rested on these pillars.
The AKP’s coming to power coincided with and initiated new developments. The most important of which was that the staunchly secularist Turkish army and bureaucracy steadily lost their influence in internal politics and over foreign policy. Their stand had been resolutely pro-US and pro-Israel.
However, when the AKP came to power, representing social and political forces that had been excluded from the state institutions, it started to challenge the hegemony of the army and the state bureaucracy. As a result, the AKP’s foreign policy has become more responsive to the plight of the Palestinians, and the positions of Israel and Turkey on regional politics have started to diverge. There have also been sporadic tensions with the Israel lobby in the US, and military and economic relations have started to be influenced by political and social tensions with Israel.
Nevertheless, the AKP’s responsiveness to and sometimes use of the Palestinian plight, and criticism of the Israeli aggression in the region did not radically transform the military ties between Turkey and Israel — not even in the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli assault on Lebanon. Turkey continued to cooperate with the Israeli army and to use Israeli equipment for a variety of purposes. For instance, then Defense Secretary Vecdi Gönül stated that Israeli drones were frequently used in the cross-border military operations in Iraq in 2008 against Kurdish rebels.
It was only after the Mavi Marmara raid that tensions steadily escalated and all military relations and deals were suspended. But the suspension of these relations should also be qualified from a broader economic perspective. Although Israel is not among the most important of Turkey’s economic partners, the volume of trade increased from $2.6 billion in 2009 to $4.5 billion in 2011. In comparison, Turkey’s volume of trade with Iraq is twice as much what it is with Israel and is even higher with Iran. Meanwhile, trade with Russia is roughly $33 billion.
In short, the AKP’s relations with Israel have displayed continuity with previous governments with only occasional disruptions and tensions. Despite overjoyed cries in the mainstream media of a victory for an unprecedented Israeli apology, it was not the first time that Israel apologized to Turkey. On at least two different occasions in the past five years, Israel apologized to Turkey. Erdoğan probably knew that another apology was forthcoming when he quickly backtracked from his assertion that Zionism was a crime against humanity — a statement he made in Vienna at a United Nations event a few days before the Israeli apology.
A glance at the Israeli-Turkish relationship shows that the apology was not a radical departure from the main trends of these relations either over the long term or over the AKP’s rule in the last ten years. What made it significant this time was the attention paid to the flotilla and those killed.
Public opinion in Turkey is also overwhelmingly supportive of the Palestinians and critical of Israel and US policies in the region. The flotilla as a civil initiative had the backing of this sincere support and had higher visibility. In contrast, the other cases when Israel apologized, the incidents were related to military operations and diplomatic misconduct. Nevertheless, the Israeli apology is important in that it will hopefully remind Israel that no one country can go on existing in isolation from its neighbors and that self-righteous arrogance is often an impediment to create a common world.
But these new factors do not necessarily and quickly translate into a permanent change in the dynamics of regional politics. It is worth remembering that the logic of foreign policy-making and international relations are still very state-centric. Therefore the interests of states continue to override popular pressure for further democratic change and political representation. In this respect, it is significant that the mainstream media and Ankara tried to pass over in silence the dissenting voices to the apology, and represented the reactions as if the apology was uncritically accepted even by the families of the victims.
The IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation), the group which organized the flotilla, expressed its reservation with regard to the continuing blockade in Gaza but also stated that the apology was “a political and diplomatic success.” Some of the families of the victims and a few local branches of the IHH have been more critical of the apology stating that it was too little too late — a reaction that did not amount to an outright rejection but was much more critical than it has been portrayed.
The critics have also pointed out that apologizing for “operational mistakes” isolates the raid from the larger historical and political context in which it took place, and defines it as a minor transgression. In this sense, it is also legitimate to ask whether the restoration of the diplomatic ties amounts to rethinking the nature of the relations of power, or whether it amounts to sustaining the state-centric logic of politics in the region. Does this apology promise more freedom and equality to the people, or does it restore the interests of the military industry and businesses, leaving the larger context of political repression intact?
For those who have high hopes from Turkey, or who see Erdoğan as an effective leader, it is worth remembering that his increasing authoritarianism and the still very centralized administrative institutions and practices in Turkey are hardly compatible with a participatory and democratic public sphere. When Erdoğan was at the height of his popularity two years ago, it was the streets of Tunisia and Egypt that brought true hope for regime change.
Murat Dagli teaches history at Istanbul Bilgi University.