Ali Aslan and Moran Banai spoke on the issue of Turkey’s strained relations with Israel. Speaking from the Turkish perspective and the Israeli perspective, respectively, Aslan and Banai discussed the history of relations between these two countries, as well as the nature and causes of their current tensions. Each speaker also made recommendations for how the Turkish and Israeli governments might mend their nations’ going forward.
Speaking first, Ali Aslan outlined the history of Turkish-Israeli relations as a means for providing acontext within which to view the current strained relationship. He asserted that, historically, Turkey’s attitude towards Israel has corresponded with Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians and its attitude towards negotiating an Arab-Israeli peace process. As such, Turkey has shown a pattern of increased willingness to engage diplomatically with Israel when Israel shows increased willingness to engage positively in the peace process. Aslan then explained that this emphasis on encouraging an Arab-Israeli peace agreement stems from Turkey’s desire to maintain stability in its region, which is clearly reflected in Turkey’s “Zero-Problems-with-Neighbors” foreign policy. He asserted that all of the recent points of contention between Turkey and Israel - namely the Israeli blockade of Gaza, Turkey’s exclusion of Israel from a joint Anatolian Eagle military exercise, and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s fury over the intentional humiliation of Turkey’s ambassador to Israel at a meeting with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon should be viewed within this context of Turkey’s desire to maintain regional stability for both economic and political purposes.
In regard to the future of Turkish-Israeli relations, Aslan affirmed Ankara will likely continue pressuring Israel to both cooperate with Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and improve humanitarian conditions in Gaza. However, he emphasized that the fiery nature of Erdogan’s rhetoric towards Israel will be both unnecessary and damaging going forward. He asserted his belief that Israel has received Erdogan’s message, and that the Turkish government will need to adopt a more balanced rhetoric when talking to and about Israel, or else risk permanently damaging ties with Israel and, thus, inadvertently undermining its “Zero-Problems-with-Neighbors” policy.
Following Ali Aslan’s remarks, Moran Banai also illuminated aspects of the history of Turkish-Israeli relation. She explained that strong diplomatic relations between the two countries solidified during the aftermath of the Cold War, when both countries perceived similar threats from nations such as Iran, Iraq and Syria. As Turkey’s interests shifted in favor of increased engagement with these neighbors, however, Turkey’s economic and security interests diverged from those of Israel. Nonetheless, Banai affirmed that both countries ultimately need one another. From the Israeli perspective, this need is based on the fact that Turkey is a fellow democracy in the region that has positive relationships with their mutual neighbors. Thus, a positive relationship with Turkey will be crucial for Israel if it wants to improve its own regional ties. From the Turkish perspective, maintaining strong relations with Israel is essential if it wants to maintain its role as a mediator in the region, for how can Turkey mediate between Syria and Israel, for example, if its ties to Israel are in shambles?
According to Banai, therefore, both Turkey and Israel clearly have strong, vested interests in maintaining positive relations with one another. The question is, however, how can these two countries overcome current tensions that exist between them in order to foster rapprochement? In answering this question, Banai asserted that Israel, for its part, will need to accept that political authority in Turkey no longer lies in the hands of the staunchly secular military, with whom Israel has traditionally maintained strong relations. The Israeli government needs to embrace Turkey’s democratic leadership and come to terms with its more dynamic foreign policies and learn how to navigate the varying perspectives of Israel’s three principle leaders, Lieberman, Barak and Netanyahu. In this atmosphere, Erdogan’s fiery rhetoric, as opposed to more diplomatic discourse, is particularly damaging. Finally, both governments must limit the degree to which they allow domestic attitudes to dictate foreign policy. In Israel, the popular perception is that Turkey is turning towards the East and is no longer an ally, while in Turkey Israel is viewed extremely negatively in light of its continued conflict with the Palestinians. Thus, Turkish and Israeli leadership must find a way to guide domestic opinion, rather than be guided by it, or else jeopardize any chance for reconciliation.
Ali H. Aslan is senior Washington Correspondent of Turkey's daily newspaper "Zaman" since 1997. Formerly worked in Zaman's Istanbul headquarters including Deputy News Editor, he also writes a weekly column for the same newspaper and its English language affiliate, Today's Zaman.
Moran Banai is the Policy Director of Middle East Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress. She worked as a researcher for the National Security Network on issues including transnational terrorism, and U.S. economic competitiveness, and was the Editor-in-chief of Columbia University's Journal of International Affairs from 2005 to 2006.