So much for Israel-Turkey détente

By Nathan Jeffay, December 23, 2013
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Everyone is watching to see whether the Israeli-Palestinian talks will back out of the dead end that they seem to be approaching. But what about Jerusalem’s other stalled negotiations?

The Israel-Turkey feud is no small matter. In fact, it dominated the end of US President Barack Obama’s spring visit to Israel, and was important enough for his flight to be held up as he dramatically facilitated a reconciliation phone call from Ben Gurion Airport.

When Mr Obama left Israel just before Passover, there was great excitement that a rapprochement between Jerusalem and Ankara, strong strategic allies until just a few years ago, was under way. It seemed that the biggest source of antagonism, the Israeli operation against the Gaza flotilla of May 2010, which left nine Turkish activists dead, could be consigned to the past with compensation and declarations of regret. After all, Israel’s proud prime minister had just phoned his equally proud Turkish counterpart to make good.

Since then, there have been a few more positive developments. Last week, Israel’s Transportation Ministry authorised flights to Turkey after a five-year hiatus. And Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz recently went to a conference in Istanbul.

But there are plenty of reasons to think that a genuine breakthrough in the relationship is still a long way off.

Turkish opposition to Israel did not suddenly erupt after the flotilla, but had been brewing for a long time. And as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan switches into election mode, he is unlikely to want to stick his neck out on Israel given his reliance on Islamists for political support.

What is more, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his conciliatory phone call to Mr Erdogan, Avigdor Lieberman was outside the government, fighting a corruption case.

Mr Lieberman, now acquitted and back as Foreign Minister, was in charge of the Foreign Ministry in 2010 when it humiliated Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, by seating him in a low chair for a meeting. Mr Lieberman is well known to be wary of Turkey.

The optimism felt on the spring day when Mr Netanyahu picked up the phone to Ankara now seems a distant memory.

Last updated: 5:45pm, December 23 2013