New dawn for Turkey-Israel ties?

Prime Minister Erdogan at an election rally in Ankara last month

Prime Minister Erdogan at an election rally in Ankara last month

Israeli and Turkish diplomats are hopeful that following the victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sunday's general elections, an opportunity has opened up for an improvement in relations between the two countries.

Although ties have significantly deteriorated over the past two and a half years, there are signs that Ankara is now looking into ways of preventing the flotilla being planned by Turkish Islamist group IHH from sailing.

Senior officials in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office say that Israel is aware of the shift in the Turkish position and will try and exploit it to improve diplomatic relations.

The deaths of nine Turkish activists, shot in a clash with Israeli commandos during the previous flotilla in May 2010, caused a major diplomatic breach that had been steadily widening since Operation Cast Lead in December 2008.

Davutoglu urged flotilla leaders to ‘reconsider’

A first signal in a change in the Turkish position came last week when Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged the organisers of the flotilla to "wait and reconsider" until the implications of the opening of the Rafah crossing three weeks ago become clear.

This week, there were reports of an offer by the IHH, through Jewish community leaders in Turkey, to allow Israel to inspect the flotilla's boats before reaching Gaza. And on Wednesday, Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported that the organisation was indeed considering a delay in the flotilla's launch.

Turkish diplomats have said in recent days that it would be possible to reach an agreement over the flotilla and other outstanding issues between the two countries, especially following the elections. "Erdogan is now less concerned about nationalistic feelings, as he has secured his government. Also, if he wants to make changes to the constitution, he needs the support of at least part of the opposition, so this is not a period for turmoil abroad," said one.

A veteran Israeli diplomat said this week that "Erdogan has to deal now with a crisis on his border with Syria, and the fact that his alliance with Assad is now irrelevant. He has the chance now to influence the future of Syria, and this also puts him at odds with Iran, which is trying to keep Assad in power.

"In this situation, he needs Israel as an ally and Israel should realise this and try to mend fences. It's not certain though that the Netanyahu government understands this or is willing to make the necessary gestures."

Mr Netanyahu was cautious. During a visit to Rome on Monday, he refused to comment on the election, saying that "it is an internal Turkish matter". He added that "we have no intention of continuing with a tense relationship".

Meanwhile, the Israeli Navy is taking no risks and on Wednesday conducted a large exercise to practise overtaking supply ships sailing for Gaza.

...BUT THE TURKISH ELECTION WAS AN ISRAEL-HATE FEST

Although the election was dominated by domestic issues, the issue of Israel came up as a populist punch-bag whereby each side sought to appear more anti-Israel than the other.

The Mavi Marmara, for example, was referred to repeatedly by Mr Erdogan during his campaign, who hit out several times at his main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Social Democrat CHP, for remaining silent at the time of the incident.

In another speech, Mr Erdogan blamed Mr Kilicdaroglu for siding with Israel after the CHP leader criticised the government for mishandling the crisis and causing a deterioration in Turkey's relations with Israel.

Mr Kilicdaroglu retorted by slamming Mr Erdogan for negotiating secretly with Binyamin Netanyahu after the incident and also by trying to arrange a series of economic deals with Israel.

In another development, Mr Erdogan claimed that an article in the Economist which criticised him for his authoritarian tendencies had been placed by "the Israeli lobby and Jewish capital". Other senior AKP officials followed up with similar antisemitic remarks.

    Last updated: 1:21pm, June 16 2011