Understanding Israel’s apology

Last week saw Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologize to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the deaths of Turkish nationals on the Mavi Marmara in a raid on May 31, 2010.

Many pundits have viewed this apology as the beginning of the healing process between the two countries, which have remained deadlocked over the last three years. Despite expectations that as long as Erdogan and Netanyahu remained in power Turkey and Israel would not be able to inch towards cooperation due to the heavy baggage of nationalistic and religious feelings, Israel offered an apology, a rare event in Israel’s recent history, and these two countries seem to have set into motion a new rapprochement.

The reasons for this historic event are manifold. Both countries feel extremely alarmed by the ongoing civil war in Syria and fear the negatives consequences of the spread of the crisis to adjacent countries. Closer cooperation between Ankara and Tel Aviv is required to ensure Syria’s chemical weapons do not to end up in the hands of the extremist groups. Both countries also share similar perceptions of a threat concerning Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and its determination to develop nuclear weapons. The slipping of Iraq under Iranian influence and Iran’s incessant support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime are also concerns common to both. The fact that hawkish former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has remained outside the post-election Israeli cabinet seems also to have made it easier for Netanyahu to offer the apology. Israel feels extremely isolated in the sea of emerging Islamist regimes across the Middle East, an unwanted outcome of the Arab Spring, and Israelis yearn for a normal, stable life. The more Israelis longed for a tranquil, stable regional environment, the closer they came to the view that relations with Turkey had to be put on a cooperative course.

Like it or not, Turkey seems to be the only country in the region that appears to be an ideal neighbor for Israelis to live with. Turkish Islam is more cultural than political, and Turkey is a rising power with enormous potential to contribute to regional stability and the normalization of Israel’s place in the region. That Turkey sometimes quarrels with leading Western powers and its accession negotiations with the EU have remained frozen over the last three years have not prevented Turkey from coming closer to the West in recent years. Turkey is one of the key allies of the United States, and Turkey’s commitment to NATO has increased during the course of the developments associated with the Arab Spring.

All these factors notwithstanding, I believe that three particular developments stand out in this outcome. The first is Turkey’s new Kurdish initiative, which has resulted in terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan declaring the end of the PKK’s military struggle against Turkey. Combined with the country’s improving relations with the Iraqi Kurds, Turkey’s growing determination to free itself of decades-long PKK terrorism through civilian mechanisms will prove to be a game-changer in the new Middle East. Assuming that the old Middle East is gradually giving way to a new Middle East in which Turkey’s regional clout will increase with the realization of overdue Turkish-Kurdish peace across all levels, the Israeli administration may have come to the conclusion that long-term Israeli security interests would be much better served by cooperative relations with Turkey than by pushing Turkey closer to the anti-Israel camp.

Secondly, the amelioration of Turkish-Israeli relations is in the regional and global security interests of the United States, which is currently run by a president who appears to believe that the best possible way to manage the ongoing transition process in the post-Arab Spring Middle East is through the off-loading of traditional US responsibilities to close American allies. The United States is currently in global retreat and needs a time-out period for internal restoration. Turkish-Israeli cooperation would certainly help ease the workload on US strategists and facilitate the American pivot to East Asia.

Thirdly, the dynamics of the American-Israeli relationship should not be overlooked in this process. That the Israeli apology came on the sidelines of the American president’s visit to Israel seems to suggest that the president asked this in return from Netanyahu for his efforts to win the hearts and minds of the anti-Obama Israeli public. The messages that Obama conveyed during his short trip to Israel seem to have dispelled all doubts as to the US commitment to Israel’s territorial security and existential legitimacy in the Middle East. Asking the Israeli government and Israelis alike to sympathize with the agonies of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and taking some steps to mend relations with Turkey might be part of Obama’s well-calculated efforts to reset relations with Israel.