Marriage of Inconvenience

Murat Cetinmuhurdar, Presidential Press Service, Pool via AP

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses people gathered for a traditional "Iftar" Muslim feast at his palace in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, June 27, 2016. Israel and Turkey struck a broad reconciliation pact Monday that will restore full diplomatic relations after six years of animosity between the once-close Mideast powers. 

At mid-day Tuesday, a couple of hours after Israeli and Turkish officials signed the accord to end the two countries' six-year estrangement, a targeted ad popped up in my Twitter feed in Jerusalem. It came from Turkey_home, a joint effort of Turkey's Tourism Ministry and its national airline, and linked to a video of sensuous scenes of swimming and windsurfing in an azure sea. Aha, I thought, that didn't take long. They want us back.

In the evening, a few hours after that, my phone began vibrating with news alerts, first in Hebrew, then in English, with fragmentary reports about gunfire and suicide bombers at Istanbul's airport. The death count rose. The photos showed chaos.

It occurred to me that my neighbors were not likely to buy package-deal beach holidays in Turkey this summer.

The timing of the attack, unlike that of the ad, appears unrelated to the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement. Turkey has suffered 14 major terror incidents in a year, some by Kurdish rebels, some by the Islamic State.

But the airport horror was a reminder to be realistic: This week's accord does not herald a return to warm ties between Israel and Turkey. It was necessary, and long overdue. As such, it is a victory of pragmatism over pride. As a side benefit, it may bring some improvement of conditions for the 1.8 million Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip. But as Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and an expert on Turkey, put it, “This is a marriage of convenience.”

In the 1990s and into the next decade, Turkey was one of Israel's strategic allies in the region, alongside Egypt and Jordan but with much more public warmth. The relationship included military and intelligence cooperation and Israeli arms sales. Besides all that, Turkey became the low-price vacation destination of choice, for Israelis who enjoyed an unusually friendly welcome.

The relationship began fraying, very gradually at first, after Recep Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 as head of the Islamist Justice and Development Party. The journey of the “sultan,” as critics call him, away from the country's Kemalist, secular past paralleled his increasing distance from Israel.

The takeover of Gaza by Hamas in 2007 and Israel's response of drastically restricting trade and travel in and out of the enclave added to the tensions with Ankara. The breaking point came in 2010, when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, part of a pro-Palestinian flotilla trying to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Unprepared for the violent resistance they met, the commandos opened fire, killing nine people. Turkey recalled its ambassador; Israel reciprocated; military ties were almost entirely cut. Trade continued; tourism didn't.

Israel apologized to Turkey in 2013. It's possible that a much quicker apology could have smoothed things over. Then again, it's possible that Erdogan relished the opportunity to position himself as the ally of the Hamas non-state in Gaza, as a means to realign Turkey with the Arab world. Erdogan, who was elected president in 2014, demanded an end to the blockade as the price for reconciliation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected that. For both leaders, the rift offered the political profit of hanging tough.

Now, though, both have bigger problems. The collapse of peace talks between the Turkish government and PKK rebels has reignited the incredibly underreported conflict in Turkey's Kurdish regions, which might be called civil war if that term were not associated with bloodshed of a whole magnitude in Syria. In the Syrian war, Turkey's anti-regime stand puts it at odds with Russia. After Turkey downed a Russian warplane that it said crossed from Syria into its airspace last November, Russia imposed economic sanctions, which included blocking Russian tourism to Turkey. Concern grew in Ankara over Turkey's dependence on Russia for a large portion of its natural gas. Erdogan issued his own apology to Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, but the worries about overdependence won't vanish.

Netanyahu faces the opposite conundrum. He has put tremendous political capital into a framework arrangement between the Israeli government and the duopoly of companies—the U.S. firm Nobel Energy and Israel's Delek Group—that own the rights to Israel's offshore natural gas deposits. Against heavy opposition, the prime minister has backed exporting a large portion of the gas, rather than holding it for domestic use. But exports to the largest intended customer, Egypt, are in question, in part because Egypt has discovered offshore deposits of its own. Netanyahu pushed gas exports as a strategic tool for strengthening ties with allies who would become dependent on Israeli supplies. Now to protect his export strategy, Netanyahu has swallowed his pride and compromised with Turkey. It's the wrong reason, but the right step.

On paper, the Israel-Turkey agreement includes what amounts to an out-of-court settlement on the Mavi Marmara fiasco and a compromise on Gaza. Israel will pay $20 million in compensation to the families of the dead and wounded; Turkey will block the criminal suits by the family members against Israeli soldiers and officers. The Gaza blockade remains in place, but Turkey gains access to the enclave via the Israeli port of Ashdod. Turkey's plans include building a hospital and a desalination plant in Gaza. “They reached an agreement that really is a beautiful piece of diplomacy,” says ex-diplomat Liel, now on the faculty of Tel Aviv University's conflict resolution program. The Israeli motivation, he says, is a potential gas deal. The tradeoff is opening Gaza to Turkey.

For Gaza, I would add, the Israel-Turkey compromise is a mostly missed opportunity. As long as the state of semi-war between Israel and the Hamas regime continues, no Israeli government will risk giving up control over imports to the Strip. That would mean letting in flood of weaponry. But the current Israeli restrictions go far beyond that, and include drastic limits on people leaving or entering Gaza. “For example, if [a Gazan] wants to visit a family member who lives in Israel or the West Bank, they have to be a first-degree family member who is suffering a grave illness, has passed away, or has a wedding,” explains Tania Hary, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights group focusing on Gaza. “The [Israeli] security officials recognize that the closure has not helped Israel—the unraveling of the economy, the sense that young people feel hopeless,” Hary argues. “The politicians are having a harder time extricating themselves from a grave mistake.” The accommodation with Turkey could have provided them with the face-saving pretext for major change.

Instead, Israel has loosened the siege only for Turkey. If Turkish aid eases the lives of Gazans, it will partly take Israel off the hook for their welfare—just as foreign donations to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank prop up the economy there. Put differently, Netanyahu's concession to Turkey actually allows him to expand a policy of outsourcing the costs of occupation. And whatever improvement this does bring to Gaza will rest on fragile foundation of an as-yet unsigned energy deal.

So for now, this is really a marriage of inconvenience. It reflects overlapping economic problems, and each country's weakened international standing. It's far from the Israeli-Turkish strategic partnership of the past. It's not even likely to bring droves of Israeli vacationers back to Turkey's beaches.

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