The once ice cold relationship between Turkey and Israel appears to be nearing a thaw as Turkish and Israeli leaders prepare to meet in Switzerland this week. The two countries have been estranged for over five years now after the Mavi Marmara incident left eight Turkish and one Turkish-American activists dead in May 2010. While attempts have been made to improve relations, at times with the encouragement of the United States, we have not yet seen a formal reconciliation. Is now the right time?
Judging by the language coming from both sides, there is clearly interest in improving diplomatic ties. Turkish President Erdogan commented on the topic in January, saying that “Israel needs a country like Turkey in this region. We, too, should admit that we need a country like Israel.” Days later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that he is “hopeful” for a restoration of ties while in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, saying that it would be good for both countries. Officials from both countries are scheduled to meet in Switzerland this week in an attempt to finalize a reconciliation agreement.
Outside of official negotiations, we have also recently seen activity among government officials that suggest a willingness to improve relations. This past Tuesday in Ankara, President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu both met with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which consists of fifty-one Jewish organizations. On January 27, Turkey’s Minister of European Union Affairs Volkan Bozkir attended a ceremony commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Ankara. Bozkir expressed concern over increasing rates of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and overall xenophobia, stating, “Unfortunately, we see that anti-Semitism is still prevalent in some marginal circles in our country, together with Islamophobia and xenophobia. We cannot tolerate any form of hate speech, regardless of the religion, sect or ethnicity it targets.”
In an even softer demonstration of shifting attitudes, the first public celebration of Hanukkah by Turkish Jews was held in Istanbul this past December. The lighting of a menorah in Istanbul’s Ortakoy Square was attended by officials from throughout the local and national government, along with representatives of the Israeli and American consulates. Both President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu issued statements to Turkey’s Jewish populations for Hanukkah. Erdogan stated, “ Our Jewish citizens are an indispensable part of our society, and with these thoughts I wish peace, happiness and well-being to all Jews on the occasion of Hanukkah.”
The road ahead for Israel and Turkey is still not completely clear. After the incident, Turkey stated three conditions for reconciliation with Israel: Israel must apologize, provide compensation to the victims’ families, and lift its blockade of Gaza. Major headway has been made with the first two demands. With President Barack Obama’s encouragement, Prime Minister Netanyahu called Turkey’s then Prime Minister Erdogan in March 2013 to officially apologize for the deaths of the activists. In early 2014, Israel offered $20 million in compensation for the victims’ families, though this has not yet been formalized.
Still, Israel’s blockade of Gaza stands in the way of complete reconciliation. And recent accusations by Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon that the Islamic State “enjoyed Turkish money for oil” certainly do not help. Yet, we have observed multiple indications of an impending thaw, and this week’s negotiations will give a better indication of what is to come in the Turkish-Israeli relationship.