Over the past few weeks, and then again even more intensely over the past few days, there has been a flood of stories surrounding Turkey and Israel, some of which ring truer than others. The various reports also paint a muddled picture as to what is going on between the two countries; on the one hand, Israel and Turkey are on the verge of reconciling, and on the other they are just as far away as ever. I thought I’d run down the list of what has been reported to try and cut through the fog a bit and figure out what is actually going on.
This is the story that got the most attention after it was reported that Turkey, and specifically Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, had vetoed Israeli participation in the NATO summit that took place in Chicago over the past two days. On the face of it, there is no reason to doubt this report’s veracity. Turkey has been consistently ratcheting up the pressure on Israel in order to force an apology and compensation for the Mavi Marmara, and blocking Israel from the NATO summit would certainly be consistent with this pattern. On the other hand, the State Department said that Israel was never going to be invited to the summit in the first place and Israel confirmed that it had no plans to go anyway. This makes sense in light of the fact that Israel is not a part of NATO and to the best of my knowledge has never attended a NATO summit before, not to mention the fact that this particular meeting focused on the security situation in Afghanistan, which is not an issue that involves Israel in any way. I have also heard rumors that Davutoğlu did not actually veto Israel’s participation and that the story was leaked as misinformation. It’s hard to know what to make of all this, but the sum total of the evidence suggests to me that Israel was never going to be invited to the NATO summit having nothing to do with Turkey.
Israeli Violations of Northern Cyprus’s Airspace
Last week, Turkey accused Israel of flying into Northern Cypriot airspace after it scrambled jets to intercept the Israeli plane. This is part of the ongoing tension between Turkey on one side and Cyprus and Israel on the other regarding the natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, and it is a thorny situation that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Israel and Turkey were certainly never in danger of exchanging fire over the Israeli plane, and it would take a huge screw up of massive proportions for that to ever occur. Chalk this one up to the omnipresent tensions that exist between Israel and Turkey at the moment, although I can’t help but note the oddity of Turkey scrambling jets and accusing Israel of violating the airspace of a country that nobody else recognizes but Turkey and that Turkey claims is its own sovereign state.
Israeli Troops in Cyprus
This one wins the prize for stretching all bounds of credulity. It has been reported that Israel is planning to station 20,000 troops in Cyprus in order to protect a gas terminal that it will build. First, it seems a bit out of proportion to deploy 20,000 soldiers to protect 10,000 construction workers, particularly given that this gas terminal is being built in Cyrpus, not in Afghanistan or Somalia. Second, the notion that Cyprus or the EU would allow Israel to base 20,000 troops in Cyprus (for comparison’s sake, the Cypriot military has only 10,000 active duty soldiers in total) is so laughable that it is barely even worth discussing. Suffice it to say that the Israeli Foreign Ministry must have thought that the reporter asking for a comment on this worked for the Onion.
It was reported a couple of days ago that Israel, which sold Heron drones to Turkey and under the terms of the sale was responsible for repairs to the aircraft, has fixed the drones and returned them to the Turkish military. This is a good development by all accounts, particularly since I am of the view that good relations between the two militaries is much more important than a full restoration of amicable political ties. Obviously this was a political decision too, so it’s an encouraging sign that cooperation between Ankara and Jerusalem is still possible. The news did, however, make we wonder what Davutoğlu has to say about the issue now after denying in January that any Herons were sent to Israel for repairs.
Erdoğan’s Emissary to Netanyahu
Finally, there was the news reported by Israeli Channel 10 that Prime Minister Erdoğan sent a personal envoy to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu in an effort to mend relations, but that Turkey will not be able to move forward absent an official apology. I have no way of knowing whether this report is accurate or not, although given everything that I know about Turkish domestic politics and Erdoğan himself, I am highly skeptical. The account has not been confirmed by any other source aside from Channel 10, and while Turkey would have plenty of incentive to keep such a thing quiet, Israel does not. The only thing that gives me pause is that Turkey desperately wants to buy U.S. drones (so much for Turkey’s own Anka drone, which is scheduled to be delivered in 2014) which Congress will never agree to sell until Turkey’s relations with Israel improve, so perhaps Erdoğan is starting to think a little more strategically for the long term. In any event, I’d still be surprised if a meeting between his emissary and Netanyahu actually occurred.
So what’s with all the misinformation and bogus reports? Assuming that the NATO story was actually inaccurate and combined with the ridiculous report about troops in Cyprus, it says to me that there is a group of government officials in Turkey that do not want to see any progress made on an Israeli-Turkish reconciliation, and are doing whatever they can to keep the pressure on. There is clearly value in this tactic from a domestic politics standpoint, as Turkish nationalism is always popular and Israel is considered by some to be a true enemy of the Turkish state. Leaking stories about Turkish efforts to punish Israel – whether true or not – and concocting up scare stories involving Israeli actions in Cyprus (another convenient Turkish bogeyman) makes it more difficult for any progress on rapprochement to be made behind the scenes, as it risks making it appear as if Turkey is selling itself short and gins up public pressure to maintain a hardline position. Let’s hope that if Israel and Turkey are indeed any closer to settling their differences, misinformation in the press won’t throw a wrench into those plans.