Sunday, November 22, 2009

Attempts to Mend Israeli and Turkish Fences

Though in the last year or so, since Operation Cast Lead, relations between Israel and Turkey have been cool, recent events have highlighted that despite the outward posturing, there remains a complex relationship between the two states that is not so easily extinguished.

For example, despite the incidents which may lead one to conclude that things were not well between the two countries, they recently held military search and rescue exercises involving the Jordanian army as well in Turkey. This drill brought to mind memories of another, larger, NATO drill in which both Turkey and Israel were supposed to participate in recent weeks but to which Israel was "un-invited." This sudden change of heart was interpreted by many to be a slap in the face to Israel and a sign of Turkey's increasing criticism of and distancing from Israel since Operation Cast Lead. There may be some credibility to this interpretation, but the Turkish explanation for the cancellation also holds water.

In 2005, Israel Aerospace Industries signed a $150 million deal with Turkey to provide unmanned aerial vehicles for the Turkish military. This deal, however, has been hit by a series of delays and the Turks are apparently becoming quite frustrated with the finger pointing and attempts to deflect blame by the Israelis. The Israelis insist they have respected every clause of their contract and the delay is Turkey's fault, Turkey insists that Israel has been making up (bogus) excuses for their inability to meet deadlines. In either case, the details of what is essentially a business dispute is not relevant. What's relevant, is that Turkey doesn't have the drones and the issue has, or is coming to a head. The Turks are at this point so upset that the order from 2005 remains incomplete that they have sent a ministerial level letter to Israel suggesting that the whole, valuable contract could be cancelled if Israel does not deliver within 50 days.

Another complex aspect of the countries' relationship is the mediation that it lead between Israel and Syria and the proximity the two sides apparently came towards a deal until Cast Lead put everything back to square one. Turkey reacted when recently France suggested they would be well placed to take up the role of mediator instead of, or with, Turkey. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan suggested that Syria would not be willing to accept French mediation. The Israeli foreign minister, Lieberman, has stated he does not see how it's possible for Israel to accept Turkey as a mediator in further talks because the trust that existed between the two countries has been shaken.

Some, however, have been less deterred by Lieberman. Israeli Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the only Israeli minister to attend this year's "Republic Day" reception at the Turkish embassy, is heading to Turkey to mend fences. Ben-Eliezer is said to have particularly warm relations with Turkey and it is hoped that he can produce results. While he will be leading a trade delegation to Turkey, his goal is also to bring bilateral relations between the countries to what they were just over a year ago. His message will not only be one of trade promotion--an important facet of the bilateral relationship with trade in 2008 valued at over $1.5 billion--but the subject of mediation is also expected to come up. Ben-Eliezer will, it is reported, communicate that Turkey can continue in its role as mediator if relations return to the warm levels they once were.

These are just two demonstrations of the complex ties between the two countries. The question of water imports, for example, is another. It's interesting though that despite the reputedly poor relations and criticism of Israel by Turkey for Cast Lead, the Turks still want to purchase military equipment that was even used in the operation that Turkey is so critical of. It also cannot be ruled out that Israel is deliberately delaying delivery of the drones, as a reminder to Turkey that the two countries need one another, and that just as Turkey can proffer harsh public criticism, Israel can hold back on things that Turkey wants as well. Erdogan's reaction to the possibility of French mediation is also interesting. There may be more to this aspect of the relationship, but it seems as though Erdogan is actually concerned that this prestigious position as mediator may slip away from him. Acting as a mediator would work well for Turkey. It positioned it as an honest broker to both Arabs and Israelis, it made Turkey look moderate and a contributor to peace in the Middle East and probably gave it serious credibility in the EU. For this chance to slip away because of undiplomatic behaviour by Erdogan must be very troubling. In other words, it's in Turkeys interests to improve it's relations with Israel and be accepted as a mediator again.

It will be interesting to see what the outcome of Ben-Eliezer's trip is and to watch any subtle changes in this complex relationship.

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