Under normal circumstances, when one country apologises to another it usually passes without comment. When the country doing the apologising is Israel people sit up and take notice.
Israel is not accustomed to apologising to anyone; in fact, it is more often on the receiving end of apologies, deserved or not. This is not due to its size or role, but to the influence of the pro-Israel Lobby groups around the world, especially in the United States. The Lobby is capable of making trouble for the leader of any country anywhere in the world.
What about the man who made that astonishing ‘phone call. Benjamin Netanyahu is a powerful and confident right-winger who is more than capable of speaking to Americans in language they understand, especially politicians. So much so, in fact, that he is said to have more support in the US Congress than the President himself.
What made Netanyahu’s telephoned apology to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan even more significant is that it was made when the US President was in the same country, if not the same room. During his visit to Israel, Barack Obama fawned over the Israelis in an unprecedented manner. He went so far as to tell the Palestinians that they would have to get used to the idea of Israel as a “Jewish state” as he vowed support for Tel Aviv on every level.
Since the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010, when 9 Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli commandos in what has been called an act of piracy in international waters, the Turkish government has insisted on three conditions for relations with Israel to return to normal: an apology for the whole incident; compensation for the families of those shot and killed; and an end to the Israeli-led siege on the Gaza Strip.
What is remarkable is that Netanyahu fulfilled all three conditions at once, even though aspects of the siege will fluctuate depending on the political season, developments on the ground and the Islamic Resistance Movement’s commitment to the terms of the truce made after the most recent Israeli attack on the Strip in November last year.
So why did Netanyahu apologise to Turkey now after he has spent three years refusing to even contemplate doing so? At one stage he went so far as to say that Turkey should apologise to Israel. An Israeli official has claimed that an apology was issued two years ago only to be rejected. It beggars belief that Mr Erdogan would accept it now after his recent derogatory remarks about Zionism.
It is important to note that relations between Turkey and Israel have not been completely cold since the flotilla attack; trade relations have not been affected at all. Moreover, some military and security relations have been kept in place, the most recent of which was the spare parts agreement for Turkish aircraft; Ankara classified this as “essential” for Turkey’s security needs.
At first glance, the apology could be viewed as a courtesy to Obama during his stay as a guest of Israel. That is not very convincing; since when has Israel every made such courteous gestures for anyone? There must have been a benefit for Netanyahu and Israel to make that call when he did; Washington has asked him to do it many times but to no avail, so why now?
Personally, I think that Netanyahu needs Turkey’s help over the Syrian crisis, in which Ankara is a key player along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, perhaps the key player on the side of the opposition to the Assad regime. Its long border with Syria makes it a more natural leader in this respect.
In this context, we must consider the possibilities for Israel to have an impact on Turkey while dealing with the Syrian situation. This could be with regards to making arrangements post-Assad, the small matter of Syria’s chemical weapons, or the custodianship of its long-range and anti-aircraft missiles.
Of course, this does not mean that Turkey will respond to any Israeli demands but it is almost certain that Netanyahu believes that Ankara will be cooperative since there are security links between the two countries. He may also be counting on the fact that the Turkish army and security agencies are not totally in tune with Erdogan. They may play their own role in cooperating with Tel Aviv after the public feelings over the Marmara incident die down; perhaps that is what he and his officials hope for.
Some believe that the Iranian nuclear issue is also a factor, with Israel trying to get Turkey on board to reign in Tehran’s plans, either with intelligence gathering or logistical cooperation in the event that the Netanyahu government decides to launch a military strike. Given that the threat of such a strike appears to have receded somewhat, though, this is unlikely at the moment. It looks as if Israel is going to go along with US diplomatic and economic efforts, and the possibility of a deal with Tehran. If that is so, then Iran would want to include Syria in the discussions, although Washington does not want to link the two issues. The US may not mind Bashar Al-Assad staying in power in Damascus, because that is Israel’s preference, but it doubts its ability to impose such an option on the opposition groups in Syria. Turkey also has reservations about this due to the implications of the revolutionaries’ defeat and what that would mean as a “defeat” by an Iranian proxy.
Netanyahu might also be concerned that Erdogan is strengthening his control over Turkey and looking to push it towards a presidential system of government which, if he succeeds, is likely to give the current Prime Minister two terms as president in Ankara to look forward to. In any case, the apology came two days after Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan called on the members of the Kurdish Workers’ Party to lay down their weapons in a ceasefire with Turkey, enhancing Erdogan’s control over his country and one of its most pressing long-term problems.
Moreover, it is clear that Netanyahu fears a third intifada in the occupied West Bank, bringing with it a dent in Israel’s sense of security which it has enjoyed for the past six years. The effects of the Arab Spring must also have played on Netanyahu’s mind, endangering as it does the strategic frontiers Israel has had for decades with the dictatorial Arab regimes. Re-establishing relations with Turkey will open up a new horizon amid the instability in the region.
Although it is hard to see how Turkey will be helpful to Israel if another armed confrontation with the Palestinians arises, we can say that it will be hard for Ankara to take the lead in a supportive role. Its position will depend on the position of its Arab neighbours; it will progress once they progress, without being in the forefront. Generally speaking, Turkey’s commitment to its relations with the US and its membership of NATO will prevent its direct involvement in such a conflict if the Arabs are not also involved at the forefront.
Netanyahu’s apology to Erdogan may not be good news for Arab issues, especially the Palestinian cause, but it has had a strong impact on morale. It is clear that Israel’s relationship with Turkey will never quite be what it was pre-Flotilla.
We have to be hopeful that Erdogan’s Turkey will remain a staunch supporter of the Palestinians. To complement this, the Palestinians themselves must challenge their own leadership in order to impose conditions on the Israelis. Should the situation deteriorate, the Palestinians also need to know that outside help will be given, and given willingly. The developments arising from the Arab Spring make this a distinct possibility, which is perhaps another reason why Netanyahu decided to apologise to Turkey sooner rather than later or not at all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.