Sunday, July 18, 2010

“Cooler Heads Have Prevailed” in Turkish-Israel Relations

Deteriorating ties between Turkey and Israel have been the subject of much analysis and some criticism from Washington following the Gaza flotilla incident in which eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish American were killed after attempting to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza.

In the wake of the incident, two letters were sent to President Obama from Congress supporting Israel in its actions. The Senate letter called on the administration to consider placing the Turkish group that organized the flotilla the IHH, or the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Last week State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at a press briefing that they were “looking at IHH, but it’s a long process to designate something – an organization a Foreign Terrorist Organization.”

According to one senior Turkish source in Washington, if the IHH were to be designated a terrorist organization, it could have negative effects on Turkish-U.S relations. There would be pressure on the Turkish government to label the organizations similarly, and there would be greater scrutiny of the group’s ties within Turkey.

The difference of opinion between the U.S administration and the Turkish government over the IHH stems from a difference in opinion over whether Hamas is in fact a terrorist organization or not, said one House staffer. Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and therefore does not see the alleged financial links between the IHH and Hamas as a reason to label the group as a terrorist organization. This potential fissure in Turkish-U.S relations came up as a result of the hostile encounter between Turkey and Israel. The staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the steps taken by Congress should be seen as a warning shot to Turkey that it should repair its relationship with Israel.

It seems that the Turkish government has indeed taken the message. Former Congressman Robert Wexler, who co-chaired the Congressional study group on Turkey in the House of Representatives and who is currently the president of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, in a phone interview said that he believes that Turkish-Israeli relations have taken a turn for the better recently.

“In the last two weeks, cooler heads have prevailed on both sides, and I’m grateful for that,” said Wexler. “Now they can look towards what can be done constructively.”

Turkish-Israeli relations are important for the U.S foreign policy initiatives in the region, Wexler stressed, particularly in bringing together the divided Palestinian leadership of Fatah and Hamas in the pursuit of lasting peace in the region.

“Turkey has always played a unique role because of its ability to play the role of a bridge between East and West and between Israel and certain areas of the Arab world,” said Wexler. “If Turkey’s relationship with Israel is significantly compromised, Turkey’s role as a bridge will be diminished.

By agreeing to a meeting with Israel’s Industry, Trade and Labor minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezar in Brussels at the end of last month, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu showed signs that his government was willing to make steps towards repairing ties with Israel. However, only days after this inconclusive meeting, Davutoğlu went on to state that “Israel should both apologize and pay compensation unilaterally. If those two conditions do not materialize, the diplomatic relations with Israel will be cut off.”

So far there has been virtually no daylight between the Israeli and American position on the matter, and the likelihood of any pressure from Washington on Israel to make the concessions that Turkey has demanded appears to be even less after the apparently successful meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington last week.

(Published in the Hürriyet Daily News)

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