On May 31, 2010, a senior Turkish diplomat was awaiting a phone call from his Israeli counterpart. They were supposed to schedule a secret meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Washington to solve an issue haunting bilateral relations between their two countries. Davutoğlu was on a trip in South Africa and Netanyahu was in Canada, while the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-owned ship that was a part of an international coalition attempting to breach the blockade to Gaza, was about to leave port in Istanbul.
The Turkish diplomat did not receive the phone call he was eagerly awaiting. Instead, he was interrupted by his wife, who told him to turn on the TV. The news that broke into the regular broadcast was worrying: The Mavi Marmara was raided by Israeli commandos, and casualties were reported. “Nobody, neither us nor Israelis, expected this to happen. Both parties wanted to settle this issue quietly and, actually, we were taking it lightly. But it went out of control,” he noted. Turkey and Israel severed relations over that bloody incident in the Mediterranean Sea that killed 10 Turkish nationals, injured dozens of passengers, and resulted in a number of IDF soldiers being wounded.
Feridun Sinirlioğlu, then-undersecretary to the Foreign Ministry of Turkey, immediately reached out to American as well as Israeli officials. “Let’s solve this quickly: we want an apology and compensation,” he reportedly told them. Both the apology and compensation would come, but only after a year of bumpy negotiations that involved different actors ranging from the Obama administration to Hamas. Why did it take two countries so long to fix relations? Four senior Turkish diplomats, who served among the core diplomatic envoy between the Turkish and Israeli governments during the last decade, gave the same answer to this question: “The erosion of mutual trust.”
The exceptional yet uneasy relations between Turkey and Israel, which remained covert until the end of the 1980s, began a decade after the founding of the Jewish State. On Aug. 29, 1958, Turkish papers reported an emergency landing on Turkish soil of an El Al plane due to mechanical problems. The plane was carrying the Israeli President David Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Golda Meir, whose meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes later would be considered the beginning of the Turkish-Israeli alliance, which was grounded in both countries’ fears about the growing regional influence of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Ben-Gurion would write in a letter addressed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 24, 1958: “The domination of the Arab Middle East by Nasser with the support of the vast power of the Soviet Union would have certain grave consequences for the Western world. … I need not dwell on what such a course of developments would entail for Israel and Turkey. … We have begun to strengthen our links with four neighboring countries on the outer ring of the Middle East—Iran, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Turkey—with the object of establishing a strong dam against the Nasserist-Soviet torrent.”
Yet, Ben-Gurion was bitter that the Turkish side was committed to keeping the meeting and the start of bilateral relations a secret. “Turkey treats us as its mistress. But we have already married, and Turkey fails to accept this,” he reportedly said, to express his disappointment with Turkish officials who thought it would be too risky to publicly acknowledge the Turkish-Israeli partnership. Since then, Turkey and Israel enjoyed cordial political, commercial, cultural, and even military ties, yet there were times that domestic as well as external constraints led to formal ruptures in relations.
With the start of the millennium, a dramatic change happened in Turkey and Israel. As Gabriel Mitchell, the U.S. representative for the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (Mitvim) points out, in both countries, conservative parties replaced the secular establishments. Turkey’s conservative Justice and Development Party (JDP), with Islamist roots, and Israel’s Likud came to power following elections, and have since been at the helm of politics. After a palpable period of hesitation, both parties decided to adopt the wisdom of Ernest Hemingway: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
In fact, Turkish-Israeli relations were about to enter a honeymoon phase. In 2005, then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Israel, where he offered to serve as a Middle East peace mediator and consolidate trade and military ties with Israel. During his meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Erdoğan said he regarded anti-Semitism as “a crime against humanity.” In 2006, the Israeli Foreign Ministry described its country’s relations with Turkey as “perfect.” In November 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed the Grand National Assembly of Turkey with President Abdullah Gül. Turkey’s secular Kemalist establishment was wary of the warm relations. A series of books claiming that the founders of the AK Party were crypto-Jews, including Musa’nın Çocukları: Tayyip ve Emine (The Children of Moses: Emine and Tayyip), Musa’nın AKP’si (Moses’s AK Party) and Musa’nın Gülü (The Rose of Moses), became bestsellers among the “White Turks” in Turkey.
Yet relations were about to fall apart, oddly enough, when bilateral ties were at their zenith. On Dec. 21, 2008, Ehud Olmert visited Turkey to meet with Prime Minister Erdoğan, who had been acting as a mediator in indirect talks between Israel and Syria. “We were so close to seal[ing] the deal,” said a Turkish ex-official who was in charge of arranging the talks. “Olmert and Erdoğan had a meeting that lasted for nine to 10 hours. We did real-time mediation. Olmert was in the room while Erdoğan was talking to [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad.” Both Syrians and Israelis were willing to compromise on Golan Heights and were ready to sign a peace deal, he claimed.
However, only six days after this meeting, Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 22-day offensive on the Gaza Strip, started. “Erdoğan was furious, as he felt he was deceived. He took it personally. All his efforts were thrown in the trash,” said the ex-official. “I think Olmert was sincere in his efforts to develop Turkish-Israeli relations, as well as signing a peace deal with Syria. However, his efforts were sabotaged by the Israeli military establishment.” This was followed by Erdoğan’s Davos outburst, in which he stormed off stage following a heated debate with Shimon Peres over the 2009 offensive in the Palestinian enclave. In 2010, relations once again were strained as Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon summoned the Turkish ambassador to criticize a Turkish television drama, and humiliated the Turkish representative by seating him in a lower chair.
Despite the public level of mutual distrust, neither parties seriously considered cutting off relations. Netanyahu pressured Ayalon to apologize, while Turkey tried to avoid further escalation. Sources close to Erdoğan said he was never sympathetic to Mavi Marmara’s attempt to dock in Gaza’s port: He slammed the İHH for not seeking his permission to sail the Mavi Marmara in a speech following Turkey’s normalization deal with Israel.
A formal U.N. Panel of Inquiry was announced in August 2010 to investigate the events on the Mavi Marmara. The panel was led by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former prime minister of New Zealand, who was aided by Álvaro Uribe, a former president of Colombia. Joseph Ciechanover was appointed by Netanyahu to be the Israeli representative, while Turkey’s panel member was Özdem Sanberk. “Turkey did not have many friends on the panel,” Sanberk said, “except Joseph Ciechanover.”
While the negotiations during the inquiry were taking place, Sanberk and Ciechanover agreed on two things: First, relations needed to be fixed immediately; second, the inquiry would not seek to contribute to mending relations.
In the following years, Turkish and Israeli envoys began meeting in different European cities such as Geneva, Bucharest, and Rome. The Turkish envoy included senior diplomats like Sanberk and Can Dizdar and was directed by Feridun Sinirlioğlu.
Sanberk notes that from the very beginning Turkish demands were clear—compensation and apology—while the Israelis demanded the Turks dismiss charges against Israeli soldiers involved in the Mavi Marmara assault. The Israeli envoy was initiated by Ciechanover and later presided over by Dore Gold. In April 2011, Moshe Ya’alon, who later became Israel’s defense minister, attended a meeting in Geneva as the special representative of Netanyahu. Before that meeting, the Israeli envoy was reluctant to extend an apology, yet Ya’alon made clear to the Turkish envoy at the meeting that Israel was ready to apologize. However, Sanberk noted that those talks failed to provide a deal because Turkey refused to accept Israeli demands. During the early negotiations, demands to lift the embargo to Gaza or Hamas activities in Turkey were not on the table, Sanberk said.
As the second-track diplomacy was going on, the Turkish side asked for the Obama administration to get involved in the process. “Initially the Americans were reluctant to interfere, but later they realized both sides want to reach an agreement,” said a Turkish official who transmitted Turkey’s request to American officials. On the last day of Obama’s trip to Israel in March 2013, Netanyahu called Erdoğan to apologize in a prefab trailer that was installed next to Air Force One. Erdoğan accepted the apology and said he had no bitterness against Israel. However, according to Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Netanyahu quickly regretted the apology as he watched Erdoğan on TV the same evening announce that he would force Israel to lift the blockade. Oren quoted Netanyahu, in his book Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide: “I think we made a mistake.”
Turkish officials confirm that because of Netanyahu’s disappointment over Erdoğan’s reaction to his apology, the reconciliation talks were halted for a couple of months. In November 2013, both sides returned to the negotiation table. “We thought the deal was sealed this time,” a senior Turkish official noted. However, a corruption investigation unleashed by Gülenist prosecutors made the Israelis rethink the deal. Believing that the Turkish government would not survive the corruption scandal, the Israeli officials cut off communication with their Turkish counterparts. After the local elections in 2014, which marked JDP’s victory, Israel resumed the talks.
The United States administration was not the only party that urged both countries to mend relations. “You know who called us and ask to repair our relations with Israel immediately after Mavi Marmara?” asked a Turkish official with a sarcastic smile. “It was Bashar al-Assad.”
Hamas was not protesting Turkish-Israeli reconciliation talks, either. A politburo member of Hamas said that Hamas would prefer Turkey to have diplomatic ties with Israel, because “Turkey can contribute to the Palestinian cause better using its leverage over Israel.” According to the same Hamas official, his organization received an invitation from Ankara in 2000 during the Second Intifada. He said the Hamas envoy was “pleasantly surprised” by the warm treatment offered by Turkish officials. “Our relations have further intensified with Turkey, after JDP came to power,” he noted.
Turkish officials claimed the Israelis were not really bothered by Turkey’s relation with Hamas. “They know Turkey is not Iran, and Israel benefits from Turkey’s cooperation with Hamas,” one Turkish official explained.
As the Syrian war loomed and Iranian influence increased in the region, Turkey and Israel started to invest more time in finding a middle ground. The discovery of new gas fields in the East Mediterranean gave both parties a new interest in rapprochement. “From 2010 to 2016, when relations get normalized … there had been plenty of changes, ups, and downs; a lot problems emerged. Both parties used very harsh words against each other, tensions erupted, Palestine was bombed. But one thing has never changed: The second-track channel between Ciechanover and Sinirlioğlu. This was never closed,” Özdem Sanberk noted. “If they had closed it, we couldn’t have reached a deal today.”
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Ceren Kenar is a journalist with the Turkish daily, Turkiye.