Israel’s effort to adjust to the new reality of a hostile Islamist Turkey often seems like “one step forward, two steps back.” This week was a giant step back. Yet even so, progress has been made.
This week’s setback was Israel’s decision to participate in a UN probe of May’s raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza. Several leading Israeli ministers said the decision was made partly “to restore ties with Turkey.” As one senior official put it, “Hopefully the combination of lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip and establishing an international investigation will meet the Turkish demands and lead to a restoration of ties.”
This is appeasement of the worst kind. In order to “restore ties” with a government that has made its hostility crystal-clear, Israel for the first time gave its imprimatur to an investigation by one of the world’s most anti-Israel bodies, which has never sought to probe similar incidents in other countries. That sets a dangerous precedent.
Even worse, this decision comes just days after Defense Minister Ehud Barak voiced concern over the new Turkish intelligence chief’s close ties with Iran. Noting that years of military cooperation had left many Israeli secrets in Turkish hands, he worried that Hakan Fidan might pass them to Tehran. What normal country seeks a closer relationship with a government it suspects of sharing its secrets with its worst enemy?
Yet in its soberer moments, the government has, with considerable success, begun reaching out to some of Turkey’s traditional opponents. Last month, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou paid an official visit to Israel, becoming the first Greek leader to do so in over 30 years. And in May, the Greek and Israeli air forces conducted joint exercises over the Aegean Sea. Turkey used to be a major venue for such exercises, but lately, it has canceled them repeatedly. And these exercises are vital because they enable pilots to train over longer distances and different terrain than Israel offers.
Ties with Cyprus have also warmed. In May, for instance, Cyprus said it would stop letting Gaza-bound flotillas use its ports, and in June, the Free Gaza movement, which has organized several such flotillas, said this decision had forced it to relocate its headquarters from the island.
But Israel’s schizophrenic behavior is damaging — something even Foreign Ministry professionals, trained to favor diplomacy above all, have recognized. When Industry Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer met Turkey’s foreign minister in June in a bid to mend ties, one senior Foreign Ministry professional told Haaretz (Hebrew only):
The American government is giving Turkey the cold shoulder, Jewish organizations are boycotting it and the whole world is uncomfortable with Turkey’s behavior. Amid all this, we’re the ones who want to embrace them. So how will we be able to object to the world [doing the same] afterward?
This week’s decision shows the damage is only getting worse. It’s time for Jerusalem to face facts: as long as Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in power, Turkey will never again be an ally. Better to cut its losses and focus on building other more fruitful relationships.