Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Turkish-Israeli Talks - Do they signal a shift?

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While AIJAC has covered news about this summer's attempted Gaza flotilla in several recent posts by Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz and Tzvi Fleischer, the story of last year's flotilla has still not come to an end. Haaretz reported that the release of the UN's report on last year's flotilla incident, due to be issued yesterday, has been postponed until July 27 pending current talks between the two governments.

While the delay itself does not come as a surprise, the fact that the talks are occurring may highlight a major shift in the priorities of the Turkish government and the future of Turkish-Israeli relations. Coming amidst the recent break in relations between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad due to the latter's violent crackdown on protesters, these talks may very well offer the possibility of a turning point that sees Turkish foreign policy somewhat realigning itself with Israel and America and moving further away from the rejectionist front led by Iran.

News of the talks emerged as the UN-appointed committee chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer recently passed a final draft of the report to the governments of Israel and Turkey. As AIJAC's Allon Lee outlined recently, the report was reportedly far more critical of Turkey than it was of Israel. See Lee's post for more details on how this could lead to the softening of ties between the two countries.

The New York Times has written that Israel and Turkey remain "eager to find compromise over the wording of the report." But the fact that both parties have been aware of the draft content for at least two weeks and have been able to communicate freely raises questions as to why the additional delay has been needed and whether it indicates that reconciliation has been more difficult than expected.

The difficultly may lie in Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's insistence that Israel issue a full apology for the deaths of the nine Turks killed during the interception of the flotilla, given that Israeli leaders, while more than willing to express their sorrow and regret for the deaths that occurred, have been reluctant to apologise for what they see as a legitimate act of self-defence. Times sources say that diplomats are looking for creative ways to breach the gap, including "searching for a word that would sound like an apology in Turkish, but not in Hebrew."

Yet the importance of the talks far exceeds the issue of semantics. Commentary's Jonathan Tobin has written an article looking at the wider implications of Erdogan's willingness to mend ties, which appear to reflect greater flexibility in the Islamist leader's ideology than some believed. The Turkish leader's recent reelection might also enable him to soften his criticism of Israel. Some commentators had suggested Erdogan escalated his anti-Israel rhetoric in order to gain popularity ahead of the elections; now that the election is over and Erdogan has won, he might feel free to be more conciliatory toward Israel than he was only a month ago.

The great irony is that the event that was heralded as the end of the Israeli-Turkish partnership may bring things full-circle - while the flotilla itself embodied Erdogan's efforts to move away from the Israel toward the Islamist/rejectionist bloc of Hamas, Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, it is cooperation over the flotilla report itself that offers Turkey the best opportunity to shift back somewhat toward its historic alliance with Israel and the United States. Watching Assad's ship sink may entice Erdogan to take the opportunity while he can, as the region's only other democracy seems far more stable than any potential authoritarian partners will ever be.



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