Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan risks destabilizing the region and alienating the United States as he scrambles to deal with “hardline domestic criticism” in the aftermath of having been diplomatically out-maneuvered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in settling on terms for restoring ties between Israel and Turkey.
At stake are the substance and tone of a reconciliation agreement hammered out in a trilateral U.S.-Israeli-Turkish phone call facilitated by President Barack Obama when he was in Israel. Netanyahu and Erdogan agreed to restore relations, which Turkey cut off in the aftermath of Israel’s 2010 interception of a Turkish-sponsored vessel trying to breach Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israeli commandos boarding the vessel were attacked by members of the ship’s crew linked to the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) – a group designated as a terror organization by the Netherlands and Germany – and nine died in the ensuing fighting. Though a subsequent U.N. investigation found Israel’s blockade to be legal and raised “serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly [the] IHH,” Turkey broke off ties.
Erdogan and other officials from his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) set three conditions that Turkish diplomats insisted were final and non-negotiable: a full apology from Israel, a full lifting of Israel’s Gaza blockade, and compensation for the families of those killed. Israel developed a counteroffer as far back as 2011: a partial apology for “operational errors,” a partial relief of the Gaza blockade for humanitarian goods, and compensation for the families of those killed. Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had publicly and repeatedly belittled an Israeli counteroffer for 18 months.
On the call with Netanyahu and Obama, Erdogan – likely driven by regional considerations - accepted exactly those terms. The Israeli prime minister conveyed a willingness to work out compensation, but his apology contained critical caveats and nuances and Israel will not fully lift its embargo of Gaza. The latter had been described as a non-starter by foreign policy experts who study Israeli-Turkish relations, due among other things to ongoing Iranian weapons smuggling.
Israel and the United States promptly put out statements celebrating the call. As The Tower reported shortly after details of the call became public, however, the announcement risked “complicat[ing] Erdogan’s domestic position.” The Turkish prime minister was left in the potentially embarrassing situation of trying to claim a diplomatic victory over Jerusalem without tangible evidence or analysis of a diplomatic victory over Jerusalem.
Erdogan has sought to shore up support by boasting that he humiliated Israel and by promising to go to the Gaza Strip to “monitor” Israeli compliance with the reconciliation terms. He has also insisted at times that the deal will reassert Ankara’s influence over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, though that would at best restore Ankara’s standing to what it was before his anti-Israel gambits left the country diplomatically sidelined in the Near East.
Tablet Magazine outlined last week how Erdogan’s moves to compensate may actually worsen his standing:
It’s true that Erdogan now seems to be backsliding, claiming that he never accepted a deal without Israel agreeing to end the blockade, though Israeli officials insist that he did. The Turkish prime minister is also now promising to go to Gaza to “monitor” the situation to ensure that Israel fulfills its obligation to lift the blockade. However, this will only make him vulnerable on two fronts.
First, while Erdogan is reportedly one of the world leaders closest to Obama, the reality is that Bibi comes off as the helpful partner in this case—not Erdogan. Any more noise out of the Turkish prime minister and he may find out what’s like to have chilly relations with an American president, which, as Netanyahu can tell him, is not where you want to be. Second, and perhaps more important, Erdogan’s support of Hamas will expose him to criticism from his domestic rivals. Why is the prime minister of Turkey so eager to show his love for an Iranian client in Gaza when his opposition to Iran’s ally in Syria threatens Turkey’s security?
Meanwhile the Washington Post, evaluating his behavior last week, criticized Erdogan for endangering the reconciliation deal and potentially undermining vital U.S. interests:
Rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, two regional powers with stable democratic governments, has a compelling logic at a time when the Middle East is gripped by war and sectarian rivalry and Egypt and Iraq are consumed with internal turmoil. But the incipient makeup will require careful nurturing. Mr. Erdogan, who only a few weeks ago equated Zionism with “crimes against humanity,” has been undiplomatically crowing about Mr. Netanyahu’s apology; more troubling, he has insisted that the deal requires Israel to lift its sea blockade of Gaza, even though the statements issued by the two governments do not say that. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, whose behind-the-scenes cajoling helped to produce the breakthrough, will need to keep working to ensure that the accord does not crumble… Even modestly better relations with Turkey and Israel are nevertheless vital to U.S. interests in the Middle East — and to containing its growing disorder.
Israeli-Turkish negotiations over compensation are set to begin shortly.
[Photo: serdar / Flickr]