In what appears to be a new strategy to restore ties with Turkey, the Israeli government this week invited a group of Turkish journalists to Israel, where they first met with Avigdor Lieberman and then with Bibi Netanyahu. The thinking behind this is pretty straightforward; there has been little apparent progress so far in mending ties with Ankara, and so going past the Turkish government to Turkish journalists, who in turn will hopefully write about Israel in a favorable light, will create some momentum for a reconciliation.
This gambit, however, has initially had mixed results. First, there were conflicting reports in the Turkish press following the meeting with Lieberman over whether Israel was prepared to offer an apology for the Mavi Marmara. According to Hürriyet, Lieberman said that Israel is ready to talk to Turkey about any and all issues but is categorically unwilling to apologize, while Today’s Zaman report of the very same meeting quoted Lieberman as saying that Israel is willing to discuss an apology provided that it be included in discussions on a host of other issues. The confusion certainly did not help matters, and the Turkish Foreign Ministry reiterated its stance that it requires an apology and reparations from Israel and dismissed Israeli public diplomacy efforts as a failed end-run around the conditions laid out by Ankara for normalization of relations. Netanyahu’s meeting with the group of journalists seemed to go better, which is no surprise given that Lieberman is a particularly undiplomatic diplomat. Netanyahu met them in his national security council conference room and placed a Turkish flag next to the Israeli one, and expressed how important the relationship is with Turkey while reassuring his visitors that improved Israeli ties with Greece are not related to the deterioration in relations with Turkey.
In the meantime, none of this seems to be having the desired effect on the Turkish government. The AKP hosted an iftar dinner for the foreign diplomatic corps in Turkey, but the two countries not invited were Israel and Syria. That Israel is being lumped in with Syria, a regime that shot at and downed a Turkish fighter jet and that is busy massacring its citizens, is perhaps the biggest slap in the face that Ankara could give to Jerusalem. Then, Erdoğan held a smaller iftar dinner with Ahmet Davutoğlu and Hakan Fidan where he hosted Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal. Inviting Meshaal to a private meeting at the prime minister’s home with the prime minister and Turkey’s top foreign policy and intelligence officials is also not going to make Israel feel any more comfortable about where its relationship with Turkey is heading.
It is also unlikely that the PR offensive will move the Turkish public into clamoring for a restoration of full ties with Israel. Turks don’t see how the spat with Israel has cost them anything and are of the firm view that Israel needs Turkey far more than Turkey needs Israel. Writing in Hürriyet, Mehmet Ali Birand warned that the fallout from the flotilla has cost not only Israel influence in the region but Turkey as well and that no holistic Middle East policy can be undertaken while shutting Israel out, but I’m not sure that either average Turks or the Turkish government believe this to be the case. Turkey does not seem to think that the freeze with Israel is particularly costly, and the government has maintained its strategy of keeping pressure on Israel while Israel vainly tries to restore ties without meeting Ankara’s demands. The effort to woo journalists is nice in theory, but it is not going to accomplish much. Israel and Turkey were on the verge of patching things up last summer and then the agreement got scuttled when – depending on which reports are to be believed – either Netanyahu or Lieberman got cold feet at the last moment. The only way the situation will be resolved is on a government to government level, and whether the barrier is Lieberman’s inclusion in the coalition or Davutoğlu’s absolute refusal to even talk to his Israeli counterpart, Turkey needs to be convinced that its reputation and strategic interests are being damaged by this cold war while Israel needs to be convinced that it will have to take some genuine moves to restore ties and that the whole thing will not just blow over with time.