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Turkey And Israel, Frenemies Forever?

Much has changed, but some has not, in the complicated relationship between Israel and Turkey.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Joint US-Israeli-Turkish military exercises in 2009

ISTANBUL — Turkey is essential for Israel because it's a Muslim country that provided legitimacy to a Jewish state that the Arabs want destroyed. Turkey is strategically important for Israel because the skies of Konya were open to the Jewish state for air-fighter drills in case it might decide to strike Iran.

The two countries were destined to be close because they were, alas, the only secular democratic regimes in the greater Middle East.

These three explanations are among the clichéd credos of Turkish foreign policy, and all three were fabricated and exaggerated. Otherwise, how could Israel have dared to attack the Turkish Mavi Marmara aid ship in 2010, when Israeli forces killed 10 people aboard?

Israel acted according to its "rogue state" reflex and once more flaunted its immunity — thanks to the United States — despite the crime it committed in international waters. Israel predicted that no serious retaliation would come from Turkey and made the whole world see Turkey's capacity during an international crisis.

Now, there is an expectation that the arrest order for four Israeli commanders by an Istanbul court will send Israel into some kind of panic. Israeli officials have risked arrest in foreign countries before, and simply avoided traveling to those locations. But there is little reason for panic because Turkey's Foreign Ministry has reportedly promised its Israeli counterparts that it would ignore the court verdict and work instead on a new pact to normalize relations between the two countries. 

New dynamics

Nevertheless, the conditions that once brought Turkey and Israel closer have changed. Turkey's mediation was needed to end Israel's hostilities with Syria over the occupation of Golan Heights. Today, Syria is less of a threat for Israel because it has been weakened by its civil war. Now, it's Turkey that needs mediators to improve its relations with Syria.

I met an Israeli professor in Oslo whose words are worth repeating: "For the first time, our Arab neighbors do not hold us responsible for an ongoing conflict," he said. "We are very happy about this situation."

Again, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had hoped to use his influence and transform Hamas from a resistance movement to a peace partner. Turkey and Qatar managed to remove the political office of Hamas from Damascus during the Syrian crisis and tear it from the Syria-Iran coalition known as the "resistance axis."

Meanwhile, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was momentarily a potential problem for Israel, but that worry is gone since the coup; and Hamas lost its natural ally in Cairo in the process.

Then there are the plans for improving Turkey-Israel relations by selling natural gas to Europe through Turkey via a Mediterranean pipeline. This may also fail because of the alternative of stocking gas in Egypt and transporting it by ship.

Life has become much easier for Israel because of other developments in the region too. Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was one of Israel's most significant enemies, is gone. And Sudan leader Omar al-Bashir acquiesces to the independence of South Sudan, an ally of Israel. 

Still, considering what's happened since 2010, Israel has not been made to pay any serious toll for its flotilla raid. Commerce has actually doubled between Israel and Turkey over the last four years, and Turkey is now obliged to Israeli ports after severing ties with Syria and Egypt. Israel is making increasing profit from naval commerce with Turkey, given that Syria is not an option and serious problems occur at Egyptian ports. But this is an issue nobody talks about.

The Istanbul court verdict is of course very important for the Turkish victims, but it can't be said that it has pushed Israel into a corner. This is about Turkey's deterrent capacity and the will to apply it as effectively as Israel's talent for mitigating international pressure. 

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