Disaster diplomacy: The attack that brought Israel and Turkey closer

Op-eds / Israel and the East Mediterranean

Normalcy lacked in recent years in the relations between Israel and Turkey and should not be taken for granted

It is difficult to look for the bright side of tragic events such as the recent attack in Istanbul, which extracted a heavy price from Israel and Turkey. However, the nature of diplomacy is to search for ways to promote and rebuild international relations even in moments of sadness and grief. One can call it “disaster diplomacy.”

For example, the severe earthquake that struck Turkey and Greece in the summer of 1999, and the diplomacy led by the foreign ministers of both countries which followed, changed beyond recognition the relationship between the leaders and the public of these bitter rivals.

We also remember the visit of Jordan’s King Hussein to Israel following the massacre in Naharayim in 1997, in which he paid condolence visits to the families of those killed, knelt down and apologized. And thereby King Hussein turned an event which threatened to harm relations between Israel and Jordan into a positive image of the King and the Jordanian people in the eyes of the Israeli public.

Even in Israel-Turkey relations the effects of policies and strategies of natural disasters and terrorist attacks can be seen. The 1986 attack at the Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul contributed to the advancement of understanding between Israel and Turkey, who upgraded the security cooperation between them after years of tension and coldness. The extensive assistance given by Israel and Turkey following the earthquake of 1999, during the heyday of bilateral relations, symbolized the friendship that existed at the time between the two countries and peoples, and lent it a prominent and public expression.

Following the Mavi Marmara incident: Cooperation through clenched teeth

Even after the Israeli-Turkish crisis erupted following the Mavi Marmara flotilla in May 2010, the two countries continued to assist each other in times of crisis, even if grudgingly so. In December 2010 Turkey sent firefighters to assist with the massive forest fire on Mount Carmel in Israel, and in October 2011, Israel participated in international relief efforts for victims of the earthquake in eastern Turkey. These events showed that Israel and Turkey are still willing to help each other with humanitarian issues — albeit in a limited and mainly symbolic fashion — despite the difficult political dispute between them.

Researcher Dr. Ilan Kelman at University College London wrote a book about disaster diplomacy. He reviewed case studies from around the world, claiming that disasters are likely to lead to new political breakthroughs from nothing, or that they can certainly speed up diplomatic processes that are already brewing. In 2010 and 2011 Israel and Turkey were in the midst of an emerging conflict, and disaster diplomacy did not produce any breakthrough. Today the situation is different, and the countries are in the midst of a political process that is about to mature and against which we must examine the conduct vis-a-vis the latest wave of terrorism affecting Turkey.

In recent months, Israel and Turkey have been conducting negotiations to rebuild the relationship between them. Media reports indicate progress in the talks — despite the remaining obstacles to an agreement. Issues related to Turkey-Hamas relations and the dissatisfaction of Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Russia regarding the agreement being formulated, thus far prevented the completion of the process. But at the same time, the parties are mutually creating a more positive public atmosphere.

In the past month: Rapprochement under unfortunate circumstances

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently spoke positively regarding the restoration of relations with Israel, and, following the attack in Ankara on 13 March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time released a statement condemning the attack and expressing solidarity with the Turkish people. This trend was reinforced on the first day after the attack in Istanbul, over the course of which, under very unfortunate circumstances, steps were taken the likes of which had not been seen in recent years.

The beginning did not actually bode well. The tweet sent out by an official of the governing Turkish “Justice and Development Party” (AKP), expressing her desire that the wounded Israelis would die, seemed like a continuation of the Turkish discourse of hatred against Israel which has become more blatant in recent years, and in which also Erdogan was involved. However, the Turkish decision to renounce this declaration — and the woman who wrote it — delivered a message that similar declarations do not have legitimacy anymore.

To this must be added the condolence letters sent by President Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to their Israeli counterparts — an extraordinary occurrence of direct positive relationship between leaders; the visit in Turkey of Israeli Foreign Ministry Director Dore Gold — a public visit that has not happened for a long time; the arrival in Istanbul of an Israeli Air Force aircraft — reminiscent of other periods of cooperation; and the satisfaction expressed by Israeli diplomats over the cooperation they received from the Turks during the treatment of Israeli casualties of the attack.

It sounds like normal behavior given the difficult circumstances, but normalcy lacked in recent years in the relations between Israel and Turkey, and should not be taken for granted. The attack in Istanbul made it possible for Israel and Turkey to work more intensively and extensively work together in the professional, diplomatic and security field than the two countries were accustomed to in recent years. It is proof for the relative ease with which dormant channels of cooperation and coordination between countries can be reopened. The events of recent days may also contribute to rehabilitate the lost mutual trust between the two countries, the absence of which made it tough for Israeli and Turkish leaders to complete the restoration of relations.

Turkish-Israeli relations will not return anytime soon to where they were in the nineties. The deadlock on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major reason, as well as changes which occurred since then in each country and the entire region. But they may certainly be getting close to an agreement on the regulation of relations between them. The possibility of producing a better pattern of relationships between the two countries today seems more realistic than before the attack in Istanbul, even when it is overshadowed by the victims of terrorism, escalating travel warnings and security threats which are not likely to disappear soon.

(originally published in i24)

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