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An interview with Dr. Alon Liel

Gabriel Mitchell - Report no. 6; Rome, Italy; October 2012

Impressions from the Region is a series of publications by Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, which present the Israeli public and decision makers with perceptions and questions by Arabs and Muslims, as these are reflected in international policy conferences where representatives from Israel and the region take part. At times when channels for communication between Israel and its neighbors are limited, we find it crucial to distribute this information as a tool for promoting an Israeli foreign policy that encourages peace and regional belonging.

Dr. Alon Liel, former Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and an Expert at Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies - participated in a two-day conference last month hosted by the Aspen Institute Italia in Rome that included scholars and policymakers from Israel, Turkey, the US, and Europe. The conference, also organized by the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Israel, aimed to provide an unofficial forum to brainstorm creative methods that could improve Israeli-Turkish ties. Speaking at length following the conference, Liel shared his concerns and hopes for the future of Israeli-Turkish relations.

American officials have been breaking their heads to find a way to bring the US's closest Middle East allies together for a year and a half already. The US sees the renewal of ties as a crucial step towards achieving mutual goals regarding Syria and Iran. Though Liel described their efforts as "creative," most have fallen flat. The Obama administration appears prepared to accept a reality where the US has strong, independent friendships with both Israel and Turkey. After the conference, Liel, who served as Israel's top diplomat to Turkey from 1980 to 1983 and has written several books on Turkish politics, was not optimistic about the immediate prospect of reconciliation.

"Generally speaking it was quite a frustrating conference," he said. "The Israelis, and some of the Turks and Americans, kept trying to find an opening big enough to start negotiations, but the Turkish position was clear: Israel must apologize, must provide compensation to the families of those who died on board the Mavi Marmara, and must lift the Gaza blockade."

While Israeli officials have displayed willingness to declare a formal apology and pay compensation, the naval blockade of Gaza (often inaccurately referred to as a siege) is a red line for Netanyahu. Negotiations are currently at a stalemate. According to Liel, "Turkey does not see the lifting of the blockade as an exaggerated demand. They see this as a basic thing."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has expressed interest in traveling to Gaza in the past two weeks. In the wake of Qatar's Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's highly publicized visit last month, an Erdoğan-centric media circus in Gaza would quickly turn into another needless source of tension between Jerusalem and Ankara.

The former diplomat also said that the prospects of Israel and Turkey coming to an agreement became increasingly unlikely after the unification of the party lists of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. Liberman is identified by Turks as the primary objector to reconciliation within Israeli politics, and the "Biberman" merger cast a pall over the conference. If Liberman remains foreign minister or defense minister, Liel posited, the future will look quite gloomy.

With so much despair, I hoped that Liel would be able to provide at least a glimmer of hope.

An option that Liel believed is picking up steam amongst policymakers is trilateral negotiations between Israel, Turkey, and Egypt. President Mohamed Morsi has led an increasingly involved Egypt since his election. Chemistry with Erdoğan, who frequently suggests that Egypt follow a "Turkish model" of moderate Islam balanced by secularism, has visibly bloomed. In October 2012 their two nations participated in joint naval exercises, and hope to increase their partnership in the coming years.

There was significant debate at the conference in Rome as to the potential of trilateral negotiations, and the quality of Turkish-Egyptian ties. Some perceived it as dramatic; others assumed they would gradually peter out. However, Liel said that none could refute the fact that "an Egyptian touch" would certainly make the current situation more interesting.

These are, potentially, big pipe dreams. If the three countries did find their way to the negotiation table, it could present enticing economic and security possibilities, and perhaps lead to the kind of cooperative efforts that would pressure Hamas away from terror and ease the Israeli blockade on Gaza. More importantly, it would prevent two of the more powerful and influential actors in the eastern Mediterranean from advancing strategic ties that could potentially distance themselves from Israel.

Amos Gilad, Defense Ministry department director, has emphatically stated that there is no future for Israel and Egypt so long as the Muslim Brotherhood is calling the shots. "Out of a desire for democracy, grew a horrifying dictatorship," he said.

But the Egyptian president has managed to tune out the more radical voices in Cairo in respect to the Camp David Accords. His letter to Shimon Peres, appointment of Atef Salem as the new ambassador to Israel, and cooperative arrangement with Israeli security to eliminate terror cells from Sinai are all signs that reflect a leader whose prudence outweighs his prejudice.

It remains more plausible that, rather than Egypt it will be Obama's second administration, intent on reaching comprehensive goals regarding Syria and Iran, which will sweeten the pots of the two Middle Eastern democracies to the point they will no longer be able to refuse. For now however, track-two diplomats must continue to dig deep for answers and leave no stone unturned. As long as rhetoric prevails over pragmatism, the divide between Israel and Turkey will continue to haunt both parties and leave them frustrated.

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