BICOM Analysis: Israel-Turkey relations after the Palmer Report

Key points

  • Europe, along with Israel and the US, has a clear interest in good relations between Israel and Turkey, which can contribute to the promotion of peace and stability in the region.
  • After the publication of the Palmer Report into the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey announced a series of measures, including the downgrading of diplomatic relations and the suspension of defence trade.
  • Turkey’s decision to escalate the diplomatic crisis, rather than seek a compromise, appears to be fuelled by domestic and regional political interests.
  • Britain, along with the US and other European powers, should press Turkey on the importance of de-escalating the crisis and rebuilding relations with Israel.

Introduction: Outcome of the Palmer Report

Following the publication of the Palmer Report on 2 September 2011, Turkey announced a series of measures that have escalated its crisis of relations with Israel. Israel’s top diplomatic staff were asked to leave the country, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that all military agreements and trade between Ankara and Jerusalem were suspended. Erdogan also spoke about Turkey’s intention to increase its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Palmer Inquiry into the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident was intended to help mend diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, it failed to do so because Turkey was unwilling to accept its key findings and recommendations. The report found that Israel’s maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip was legal and justified, as was Israel’s attempt to intercept the flotilla en route to Gaza. It concluded that a group of activists from the Islamist IHH organisation on the Mavi Marmara were intent on violence and that more could have been done to stop them from sailing in the first place. It also criticised Israel for the way it conducted the takeover of the boat.

Whilst Israel had reservations about the criticism of its forces’ conduct, Israel accepted the report’s recommendation to express regret and offer compensation. Turkey rejected the report’s conclusions out of hand and demanded a full apology. Israel was not willing to go beyond the report’s recommendations and meet this demand.

Israel, the US and Europe have a clear shared interest in stabilising relations between Israel and Turkey, for the sake of promoting peace and stability in the region. Why has the Israel-Turkey dispute become so heated?

What explains Turkey’s position?

Though there are clearly genuine and high emotions in Turkey about the deaths of the Turkish activists on the flotilla, this does not fully explain Turkey’s response. Rather, a number of factors are influencing Turkey’s actions. Firstly, Turkey is motivated to distract attention from the Palmer Report’s findings, which contradict its own position and endorse Israel’s position that the maritime blockade of Gaza is legal and justified. Beyond this, Turkish politicians also have something to gain, politically and diplomatically, from a public row with Israel.

Turkey has changed after nine years under the leadership of the Islamist AKP. It is a growing economic power which aspires to a regional leadership role. It has shifted its foreign policy orientation from close ties with the West to a policy which balances relations with the West with its relations with Middle Eastern states. Turkey no longer follows US policy to the extent it once did, and anti-Western feeling has grown in the country. This situation was not helped by the setbacks in Turkey’s attempts to gain accession to the EU.

Turkey has also changed internally. At the end of July, the most senior officers in the Turkish armed forces resigned en masse after a series of disputes with the ruling AKP. In the past, the military played a much more central role as the guardian of Turkey’s secular constitution. It was also an important institution in the promotion of military ties and strategic cooperation with Israel. Now the military is a far weaker institution, and cannot balance the power of the AKP.

It would be simplistic to suggest that Turkey under the AKP has turned its back on the West. Rather, it is calibrating its actions so as to maintain its position as an indispensable Western ally, whilst also winning popular support in the Arab and wider Islamic world. Turkey recently took an important decision to agree to the deployment of a NATO early warning radar that would counter threats from Iran, on the same day that it downgraded relations with Israel. Turkey is also an important supporter of US and Western policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would likely play an important role in any future international intervention in Syria.

At the same time, the increasing independence of Turkish foreign policy has contributed to Turkey’s leadership becoming more openly hostile towards Israel. For nearly ten years – since the AKP came to power – it has promoted a more Islamic identity in Turkey, and a more radical approach to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Turkey under the AKP has become increasingly supportive of Hamas, with Erdogan even threatening last week to visit Gaza during a visit to Egypt. Anti-Israel sentiments, which used to be far less apparent in Turkey compared with other states in the region, have increased considerably.

This was particularly noticeable during Operation Cast Lead. PM Erdogan set the tone personally, storming off a public platform with Israeli President Shimon Peres when Peres tried to explain Israel’s actions. In the current climate, anti-Israel rhetoric plays well domestically for Erdogan and the AKP, with Erdogan playing up his tough stance against Israel for electoral gain in the Turkish elections in June. The Mavi Marmara incident, and the dispute over the Palmer Report, only accelerated a trend that was already apparent.

Turkey’s actions also serve its ambition to take political and economic leadership roles in the region. The vocal Turkish opposition to Israel’s policy also receives broad popular support in the Arab world. Given the growing importance of Arab public opinion since the advent of the Arab Spring, there is a clear interest for Turkey in continuing to play to this audience.

It seems, therefore, that Turkey’s decision to escalate the crisis so dramatically stems from its lack of interest in resolving the dispute. Israeli opposition leaders argue that Israel’s relatively weak diplomatic position, due to the stall in the peace process, creates a permissive international environment for Turkey to vent its anger at Israel. As Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni told a conference on 7 September, ‘Turkey smells Israel’s weakness and isolation in the international arena, and is exploiting it.’ The Netanyahu government rejects such criticism, and holds the Palestinians responsible for refusing to enter peace talks.

What explains Israel’s position?

Israeli policymakers face a dilemma. On the one hand, Israel’s strategic interests are damaged by its fallout with Turkey, and it wants to see relations with Turkey restored. The row with Turkey comes at a bad time for Israel. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the region faces unprecedented uncertainty. Israel’s relations with Egypt are strained and the stability of other pro-Western forces in the region is in question. Israel is also facing the uncertain outcome of a UN vote on Palestinian statehood later this month. On the other hand, many Israelis feel that Turkey is exploiting the flotilla dispute to score political points, rather than seeking a basis for repairing relations with Israel.

Though there are conflicting reports regarding the negotiations that took place between Israel and Turkey about the wording of a possible apology over the flotilla, Israeli officials report that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was interested in trying to find a compromise over a form of words that was acceptable to the Turks. Though right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman took a consistent hard line against any form of apology, he was unlikely to have bolted from the coalition over the issue.

Since the Palmer Report’s publication, PM Netanyahu has responded carefully. He was quick to issue a statement of regret, as proposed by the report, and expressed his hope that ‘a way will be found to overcome the differences with Turkey.’ However, he reiterated the refusal to issue the outright apology that Turkey demanded, saying, ‘We do not need to apologise for [stopping] weapons smuggling by Hamas, and we do not need to apologise for working to defend our children, our citizens and our cities.’

As well as not wishing to be manipulated by Turkey, Netanyahu must also respond to domestic public opinion. The Israeli public overwhelmingly feels that its soldiers acted to defend their lives, and Netanyahu cannot be seen to betray them. He is also keen to avoid being outflanked on the right by Lieberman, who has called for a more aggressive response to Turkey’s actions.

Conclusion: EU and US interest in calming the crisis

It is strongly in the interests of the EU and US that Israel-Turkey relations are put back on track. Turkey’s actions are playing on anti-Israel sentiment in the region and escalating tensions, contrary to Western interests. They are also undermining Turkey’s ability to play a constructive regional mediating role and promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It would be preferable to see Turkey return to the position it held as recently as 2008, when its good relations with Israel enabled it to broker indirect talks between Israel and Syria.

If Turkey continues on its current path, it could create additional tensions that would draw in European powers as well as the US. Ankara has already indicated that it may seek compensation for the flotilla victims’ families through international tribunals. Turkey is also challenging the legality of a deal between Israel and Cyprus to divide up the water between them for gas drilling rights. All of these developments distract from efforts to address pressing threats to regional stability and security.

In this context, EU states should join the US in encouraging Turkey to cease its escalation of this dispute, which is ultimately against its interests, and to find a way to reconcile with Israel.