Almost one year after Bibi Netanyahu’s attempt to patch up relations with Turkey with his phone call apology to Tayyip Erdoğan as Barack Obama stood looking over his shoulder, Turkey is again talking about about normalizing relations with its former ally. In the eleven months since the apology, Turkey and Israel have been negotiating over the terms of an agreement, with precisely how much compensation must be paid to the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara the major sticking point. Turkey has seemed in no rush to get a deal done, and at various times has made noise about Israel having to admit fault or to pay more money than Israel is prepared to do. And of course, Erdoğan and others have wasted no opportunity to bash Israel whenever convenient, either directly such as blaming Israel for the Egyptian military coup, or indirectly in referring to “dark forces” and “foreign powers” seeking to bring Turkey down. Formal negotiations may be taking place, but Israel and Turkey haven’t seemed terribly close to actually burying the hatchet.
Last month, however, news leaked that Turkish and Israeli negotiating teams were getting close to a final deal over compensation, and last week Ahmet Davutoğlu publicly confirmed that an agreement to normalize ties was in the works. As usual when it comes to this subject, I have been skeptical that this will actually happen, which is why I have resisted the impulse to write about it. Right on cue, two days after Davutoğlu made his announcement, Erdoğan came out and said that normalization won’t happen until Israel agrees in writing to completely end the blockade of Gaza. Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said yesterday that Israel is ready to sign an agreement but that Erdoğan himself is the stumbling block holding up a deal.
So what’s up with the mixed signals? Are Turkey and Israel close to an actual deal that will see ambassadors return to Tel Aviv and Ankara, or is this more of the same old routine? It is pretty easy to explain what is going on here, and it boils down to Turkey’s competing priorities that are pulling it in different directions. On the one hand, Turkey has had a very rough eight months. The Gezi protests, the economy spiraling downward, the lira crashing, the corruption scandal, the war between the AKP and the Gülenists, a growing Syrian refugee problem…it is entirely understandable that Turkey is feeling battered. On top of that, the Western response to attempts to blame Turkey’s problems on the U.S., Israel, Lufthansa, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the interest rate lobby, the porn lobby, and anyone else the Turkish government can come up with has been to warn Turkey that it is destroying its reputation in Western capitals. When you add anger over Turkish behavior such as agreeing to buy a missile defense system from a Chinese firm under sanctions or funneling money to Syrian jihadi groups into the mix, Turkey all of a sudden has legitimate concerns about its relationship with the U.S. and EU countries. Viewed this way, the turn toward getting serious about reconciliation with Israel isn’t actually about Israel at all. Because the Turkish government in many instances takes an Israel-centric view of the world, it thinks that patching things up with Israel will solve its problems with Washington. By normalizing ties with Israel, it is signaling to the West that it is still a reliable ally who can be trusted, and that it shouldn’t be left on the outside looking in. Normalization with Israel is another way of saying, “We know we have behaved badly and in strange ways, but we haven’t gone all the way down the rabbit hole quite yet.” This explains Davutoğlu’s comments, particularly since the Foreign Ministry is more sensitive than other Turkish state institutions to Turkey’s perception among Western policymakers and its diplomatic status.
On the other hand is the force that generally drives everything in the Erdoğan era, which is Turkish domestic politics. I’ve written about this so many times that there’s no need for yet another megillah, but making up with Israel doesn’t exactly play well with your average Turk, and that goes double for Erdoğan’s base. I’ve seen some counterintuitive speculation that normalizing ties would be politically helpful since it will give the AKP a foreign policy victory that it can hold up, but I think that misreads the nature of Turkish politics along with mistaking the nature of whatever deal emerges. Forcing Bibi to apologize could be spun as bringing Israel to its knees; signing a deal to normalize relations that lets Israel pay some compensation money without any real movement on Gaza (since Israel is simply not going to end the blockade just because Turkey asks) doesn’t have the same shine to it. Erdoğan is looking at municipal elections next month – elections that he has repeatedly been touting as a harbinger of the AKP’s strength – and then the presidential election this summer and parliamentary elections next year. He is, as always, thinking about maintaining and growing his political power, and taking a hardline with Israel is a no-brainer for him electorally. He is already facing much lowered polling numbers and political approval ratings, so he can’t take a chance at losing what has been such a fruitful issue for him.
Which one of these impulses will win out? I claim no inside information on how the talks are actually going, and my general cynicism and conviction that domestic politics rules all makes me think that normalization is not actually close. But I have been wrong on this issue before and very well may be again, so I don’t rule anything out. These dueling constituencies though – the outside world and the domestic audience – are tough to satisfy simultaneously, so at some point Erdoğan will have to make a choice as to which constituency is more important for Turkey’s long term health and his own political survival, and which of these two outcomes he values more dearly.