Published August 28, 2013
JERUSALEM – After a brief courtship last spring, relations between Israel and Turkey have fallen to a new low, officials in both countries say, just as the two former allies are bracing for possible U.S. military action in neighboring Syria.
The breakdown in once-close military ties could be critical if the international community, led by the U.S., decides to attack in response to the alleged Syrian use of chemical weapons last week. A U.S. strike could trigger a retaliatory response by Syria against either of its neighbors, both close U.S. allies.
But officials in both countries confirm that political and military contacts are now limited. They say reconciliation talks meant to repair diplomatic ties have collapsed quietly, and military ties, once the centerpiece of the alliance, are minimal at best. The dire state of affairs was reflected last week when Turkey's Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claimed that Israel was behind the recent military coup in Egypt, prompting condemnations from Israel and the U.S.
"The mood is so negative in the upper echelons of Turkey and Israel toward each other, it doesn't look like cooperation is possible," said Alon Liel, a former foreign ministry director general who served as Israel's top diplomat to Turkey in the 1980s.
Israel and Turkey, located on opposite sides of Syria, long enjoyed vibrant trade, tourism and military cooperation. Just a few years ago, Turkey sponsored indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria. But relations began to decline after Erdogan became prime minister in 2003. The Islamist Turkish leader gradually distanced himself from the Jewish state as he raised his profile in the Muslim world.
Ties took a serious downturn during Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip in late 2008, and turned to outright animosity after an Israeli naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American in 2010. In one infamous incident, Israel's deputy foreign minister intentionally placed the Turkish ambassador on a low-seated couch at a public meeting in order to humiliate his guest.
President Barack Obama, visiting Israel last March, persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call Erdogan and apologize for the flotilla deaths. The apology, a key Turkish demand, was expected to lead the way to reconciliation and compensation to the families of the dead flotilla activists.
Netanyahu, who had previously rejected calls to apologize, cited the Syrian civil war as the reason for his about-face. In particular, Netanyahu pointed to Syria's chemical weapons stockpile as a threat to both countries.
Yet nearly six months later, the talks have ground to a halt, both sides say. One Israeli official familiar with the negotiations said the talks have "evaporated."
The official said the sticking point was not about compensation, but persistent Turkish demands that Israel go beyond its apology and accept greater responsibility for the bloodshed. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with journalists.
Israeli defense officials paint a similar picture. The officials say that while Israel has honored pre-existing arms sales with the Turks, no significant deals have been signed since the flotilla incident. The close cooperation and joint training drills of the past no longer take place.
Israel even canceled one deal, a planned sale of more than $100 million of sophisticated air-surveillance equipment in 2011, to Turkey on grounds that the technology could be shared with enemy countries, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified security policy.
Senior Turkish diplomats confirmed there have not been face-to-face meetings on reconciliation since May. One official called them stalled and said it was unlikely they would be resuscitated soon. A second official said that some low-level discussions are continuing.
The officials said negotiators had agreed on the terms of compensation and reached a point where political leaders could have closed the remaining gaps, but the talks broke down months ago.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly to journalists.
Erdogan's comments last week accusing Israel of supporting the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi have created a major new obstacle, they said. Erdogan said in a nationally televised speech that he had "evidence" showing Israel was behind the July military coup that toppled Egypt's Islamist president.
The comments drew Egyptian and American condemnations, and prompted a senior Israeli politician, Avigdor Lieberman, to compare the Turkish leader to Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels.
Erdogan's renewed animosity toward Israel comes as he is facing a series of elections over the next two years that will shape his ability to remain the power. While Turkey and Israel share many strategic interests, including in Syria, relations with Israel are a sensitive domestic political issue.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, said that Erdogan's recent comments have effectively shut down the talks for the time being.
"The window for speedy reconciliation may have closed," he said.
A U.S. strike on Syria could still force the two sides to look for greater cooperation. Both countries could potentially find themselves the targets of a reprisal by a desperate Syrian regime. For Turkey, the stakes are particularly high with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees already in Turkey.
Top Israeli officials have been holding consultations in recent days to discuss and analyze the situation with Syria. While officials say the Israeli military has not taken any special precautions or deployments, Netanyahu, after huddling with top advisers on Tuesday, said Israel would respond "with force" if Syria tries to harm his country. But for now, any contacts or exchange of intelligence with Turkey is being handled through American mediators, Israeli officials say.
Liel, the former Israeli diplomat, said a number of developments might bring the sides together. The downfall of Assad, for instance, or even the Western imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria might spur cooperation. Progress in Israel's newly launched peace talks with the Palestinians, or renewed pressure and involvement by the White House, could also help.
He said, none of these things appear currently imminent.
"Maybe the Americans can cooperate with Turkey separately and Israel separately," he said. For now, at least, "there's not enough to lead to direct cooperation."
Butler reported from Istanbul.
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