Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, with the help of the White House, made an important diplomatic breakthrough this week, restoring full relations with Turkey after six years of conflict. The agreement could go a long way toward renewing a number of vital connections between the two countries, and it positions Turkey to act as a key intermediary between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza.
Turkey was the first nation with a Muslim majority to establish relations with Israel in 1949, and the two countries enjoyed strong economic and political ties until 2010, when Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship carrying activists attempting to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Ten Turkish nationals were killed in the fighting, resulting in Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had become increasingly hostile toward Israel, breaking relations with Jerusalem.
The situation continued to deteriorate, and there was much anger expressed by Netanyahu and Erdogan, both of whom vowed not to back down. But in 2013, at the urging of President Obama, Netanyahu called Erdogan to apologize for the deaths and agreed to provide compensation for the families.
On Monday, after the completion of a full range of negotiations held in Rome, Netanyahu announced that while the agreement was not ushering in “a honeymoon period,” it was important to Israel “in terms of security, regional stability and the Israeli economy.”
He noted that it “opens the door to cooperation on economic and energy issues,” including selling natural gas to Turkey. While Israel will set up a $20 million fund to compensate the families of the dead and wounded from the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey agreed not to prosecute Israelis over the 2010 raid. In addition, Turkey acknowledged implicitly that the blockade of Gaza is legal — proving that Israel’s military action was valid — but Israel will ease its hold somewhat and allow Turkey to build a hospital, power plant and apartments in Gaza.
A key factor in the long-overdue rapprochement is the deteriorating security situation in the region, with both Israel and Turkey worried about the Syrian fighting on their borders, the threat of ISIS and of a more emboldened Iran. Increased tensions in the region helped bring Erdogan and Netanyahu to display their more statesman-like, pragmatic sides, and the benefits should accrue to both Israel and Turkey.
Critics from the Israeli right were upset that the agreement called for paying millions of dollars to family members of those killed or wounded on the Mavi Marmara, and critics on the left, and others, complained that the deal did not include the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza War. But this compromise, however imperfect, is an improvement over conflict, and an important step in the normalization process.