Like clockwork every 6-12 months, this weekend brought the now familiar news story informing us that Turkey and Israel are holding secret talks aimed at reconciling. As usual, this one has all of the elements that we’ve come to expect: backchannel negotiations between relatively powerless envoys, breathless claims that the two sides are not that far apart despite all evidence to the contrary, leaks from one side or the other that have everything to do with domestic politics and absolutely nothing to do with the two countries’ relationship, and a political situation at the top that leaves the talks destined to fail. My reaction is the same this time as it has been every other time, which is that the talks have as much chance of succeeding as Dick Morris does of getting a political prediction right. One of these times I am going to be wrong, but let me explain why I don’t think today is going to be that day.
First, the fundamentals of the situation have not changed. Turkey is still making three demands: an apology over the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara, compensation for their families, and an end to the Gaza blockade. It is this last one that is the sticking point, since Israel has no intention of ending its enforcement of the Gaza blockade, particularly since the UN Palmer Commission ruled that the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza is legal under international law. Israel also feels that the blockade is none of Turkey’s business, anymore than it would be Israel’s business to insist that Turkey undertake a more lenient policy toward the PKK as a condition of resuming ties. Ahmet Davutoğlu reiterated on Sunday, however, that Turkey’s three demands are not subject to negotiation and thus unless a creative solution can be found to break this impasse (more on this below), these talks will meet the same fate as their forebears.
Second, when Feridun Sinirlioğlu and Yosef Chiechanover worked out language over an apology in the summer of 2011, it was ultimately scuttled when Bibi Netanyahu decided that Avigdor Lieberman’s hardline position against an apology presented too much of a political threat to him. Netanyahu was afraid that Lieberman would hammer him from the right if he apologized for the IDF’s actions, so the whole thing went nowhere. Fast forward to November 2012, and Lieberman is now even more powerful than he was two summers ago since Likud and his own Yisrael Beiteinu party are running in the January elections on a joint list. If Lieberman had the power to sabotage even a partial agreement over the language of an apology back when he was a much derided and often ignored foreign minister, his opposition this time will make the entire thing a non-starter.
Third, the January 22 election makes the timing of this almost impossible to pull off. The objections to issuing an apology and compensation for the Mavi Marmara come from Netanyahu’s right, and in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud, rightwing nationalist parties are polling much stronger than they were before. One of the latest polls has Jewish Home and National Union at 13 seats and Strong Israel at 4 seats, and while those parties can be expected to join a Likud-led coalition after the election, Netanyahu cannot afford to have them attacking him from the right before the election, even if their support wanes (which is likely). Making concessions to Turkey plays right into their hands, and it is something that the ever-cautious Netanyahu will be loathe to do.
Finally, and this last one cannot be stressed enough, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s rhetoric during the Gaza operation was so over the top and outside the lines of acceptable discourse and basic civility that no government would be able to just set that aside and continue along as if nothing happened, irrespective of what the status of the negotiations was before Israel launched Pillar of Cloud. Calling Israel a terrorist state of baby killers and denying that thousands of rockets being launched at civilians creates any right to self defense is the kind of thing that is tough to move past. If Erdoğan thinks that Israel is going to come and plead with Turkey to reconcile after his tirade, then his grasp of how governments operate is, to put it delicately, less than sound.
It’s pretty clear that the sudden leaking of these talks is coming from the Turkish side as part of Ankara’s effort to demonstrate its relevance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One cannot help but note the amateurish display of Erdoğan originally stating that there are zero contacts between Israel and Turkey to then have Davutoğlu claim a few days later that Turkey was “actively involved” in trying to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and that Ankara and Jerusalem were talking as part of that involvement. The fact that Turkey has essentially made itself irrelevant when it comes to anything involving Israel has been widely noted and the absurdity of Erdoğan’s positions is being criticized by Turks as well. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are now furiously trying to spin the ceasefire as partly a Turkish achievement, but that is only believable insofar as it can be demonstrated that Turkey has any sway left at all with the Israelis. Hence the timing of this leak and Erdoğan letting it slip that Mossad head Tamir Pardo and MIT chief Hakan Fidan met in Cairo. All of a sudden, claiming that Turkey has absolutely no contacts with Israel has become a political loser and a source of criticism, and so the Turkish government is now trying to make it seem as if reconciliation is a possibility when the reality is that rapprochement between the two sides remains a distant dream given how things currently stand.
All this aside, there seems to me to be an obvious out here. As I mentioned above, the real long term sticking point here is the demand that Israel end the Gaza blockade, but the imprecise language makes this a point that can easily be massaged. Israel is not going to end its naval blockade, particularly given the renewed focus on Iranian missiles that are being shipped to Sudan rather than directly to Gaza in an effort to avoid the Israeli navy. There is also, however, the land blockade that is enforced by both Israel and Egypt, and if Israel and Egypt jointly loosen restrictions on the land crossings to allow more goods in and out of Gaza, then Israel and Turkey can both reasonably claim victory, and it might pave the way for the countries to make up. Unless something changes though, feel free to ignore any and all news reports about secret talks and back channel negotiations between Ankara and Jerusalem.