Turkey and Israel Seek To Find A New Voice

“The huge Middle East change is good for this relationship with Turkey,” Yaakov Amidror, the former Israeli national security adviser, said last week in Jerusalem. “What we are facing now in the Middle East is historic change — probably the biggest since the Ottoman Empire disappeared from this area. Since then many changes had happened, but none has been as big and as important as this.”

The dust had indeed settled — more quickly than today — in the aftermath of both the World War I and World War II in terms of establishing the international order. Today there’s a lot of uncertainty over whether the leadership of the U.S. will continue to help bring order to the Middle East and Europe. Since the 2003 Iraqi occupation and the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, uncertainty is the order of the day in the region. No one seems to know how to end the bloodshed, particularly in Syria. And the more aggressively the pendulum swings, diminishing human dignity across the Middle East, Europe and the U.S., the more the tail wags the dog.

It was in this environment that Turkey and Israel decided in June 2016 to put behind them the six-year diplomatic and political freeze spurred by the Mavi Marmara flotilla raid that killed nine Turkish activists and wounded 10 Israeli soldiers. “Unlike wars where one [side] is enough [to start the fight], you need both sides for rapprochement,” Amidror said, speaking to a group of Turkish journalists invited by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “Israel should have the best relationships possible, because it is a small state. For us, good relations with the others in this region are very important.”

Speaking to both Turkish and Israeli officials for a week in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv who are responsible for improving bilateral ties, it was clear that the traditional frame of this relationship was intact. “We don’t want to go back to where we were, but we want to go beyond [our cooperation of six years ago],” said Kemal Okem, Turkey’s ambassador in Israel. “And that all depends how far both countries go to create mutual benefits.” He stated that when relations froze, there was no Syrian crisis, no terror threat with the scope and depth as today — especially after the emergence of ISIL — and no natural gas.

Israeli officials say they consider these as opportunities to cooperate with Turkey, but it is unknown whether the two sides see eye to eye about what kind of a Middle East they like to see at the end of this era of uncertainty. It has been 14 years since the Iraqi occupation and six years since the Arab Spring, and still no one has any clue how long this transition to a new regional order will take.

Amidror said he sees three issues changing the Middle East. First is the changing cultural and religious law between Sunni and the Shia. “Iran is the dynamic force behind the change of the Shia and Iran wants to build an axis that goes from Tehran to Baghdad, to Damascus, and a corridor on the ground from Mosul to Aleppo to the Mediterranean that would connect the big Shiite minorities — including Lebanon,” he said. Second is a fight for the spirit of the Middle East. Whether it’s the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafist Islam on one side and terror groups like ISIL on the other, both claim Islam is the solution. It can’t go on like this, Amidror said, and at some point the Muslim world will find a new way to address this dilemma. Third is the dysfunction of many governments and states, which has ended several authoritarian Arab regimes since 2011. In fact, the 2016 Arab Human Development Report stated that the challenges that led to the Arab Spring are more severe now than they were six years ago. Unemployment is still high, and it seems virtually impossible for the governments to create 60 million new jobs by 2020 to address the needs of the region’s massive population.

Amidror asserted that even if the Israeli-Palestinian issue were resolved, the region’s core problems would remain — but it would give Israel an opportunity to engage in regional politics like never before. Therefore, Israel considers the rapprochement with Turkey a positive step, even with the big unknown of whether they share the same vision for the Middle East. Iran remains a big threat to Israel, and the Israelis certainly don’t want Iran to reach to the Mediterranean through Syria. Asked whether that would align with Turkey’s interest in preventing a bloc of Kurds at its border with Syria, Amidror asked whether Turkey would want to see Iran at its border instead.

“I did not see Turkey doing something to stop Iranians in Syria or in Iraq,”  Amidror said. “Maybe it is a theoretical policy but I don’t know what your policy is. If the Turks decide they don’t want Iranians, of course we will have the same interest.”

The Israeli officials confirmed that Russia is once again a player in the region, but they also said that Russia’s ability to shape it is directly linked to the United States. “Who is leading the coalition against ISIL? Is it the Russians? No,” said one official, underlining the need to wait to see how the Trump administration will approach the Middle East. Yet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed "a post-West world order" is in the making. "I don't think you can say a post-West world order is in the making. There are no complete wins. That is why it will take years to shape it all," the same official said. "In places like Syria, Libya, and Yemen, I don't see them holding their territorial integrity. I don't know what will follow but federation in the Arab world does not work." 

Does it mean that we are about to see a grand redrawing of the borders in the Middle East? How will Turkey be affected from this all? “At the end of the day, this cannot end with some conflict between Turkey and Iran because those are the two big countries that can claim leadership in the area,” Amidror said. “I don’t know whether there will be a fight, but it will be a crisis — and how that ends will be decided by the leaders.”

The chess game for regional order is open for bets; let’s hope Turkey does not fall into turmoil and fighting as this ordeal progresses.

*This article was first published on halimiz.com’s March 16, 2017 issue.

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