Can Israel's New Coalition Fix Relations with Turkey?

Tensions between Jerusalem and Ankara run too deeply for a single election to make much difference.

RTXW1ZV-615.jpgNir Elias/Reuters

Since Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party's surprise showing last week in Israel's elections, there has been an outpouring of commentary about a new dawn in Israeli domestic and foreign policies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud, in conjunction with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party lost a combined eleven seats in the Knesset, will have to form a broader government that includes centrists like Lapid. As a result, a conventional wisdom has developed that this new coalition will lead Israel out of its international isolation. Typically, observers have been asking what the Lapid phenomenon means for the "peace process" -- as if that is something that exists. Yet a handful of commentators have also zeroed in on Turkey-Israel ties as ripe for rapprochement under a new, allegedly more conciliatory, Israeli government. It is a nice idea, but so are rainbows and unicorns. The reality is that, despite Lapid's rise, nothing has or will likely change to convince Israeli and Turkish leaders that mending ties is in their political interests.

To be fair, the Turks themselves have led foreign observers to believe that a change in Turkey-Israel relations was possible. For the better part of the last four years, Turkish officials have indicated that Israel itself was not the problem, but "this Israeli government," meaning, of course, Netanyahu's outgoing coalition of right-of-center parties. It is true that it is difficult to work with Prime Minister Netanyahu and that Foreign Minister Lieberman had, contrary to his job description, a knack for aggravating relations with other countries. Still, with the exception of the Mavi Marmara incident, the biggest problems in the Turkey-Israel relationship -- the blockade of the Gaza Strip and Operation Cast Lead -- predate Netanyahu's tenure. Indeed, the idea that a new broader and allegedly more moderate Israeli coalition will lead to reconciliation between Jerusalem and Ankara badly misreads the dynamics of Israel's left-right politics, the profound unpopularity of Israel in Turkey, and the centrality of the Middle East to the architects of Turkish foreign policy.

A handful of commentators have also zeroed in on Turkey-Israel ties as ripe for rapprochement under a new, allegedly more conciliatory, Israeli government. It is a nice idea, but so are rainbows and unicorns.

Turks have often pointed to Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip, especially the blockade of the area, as a prime example of its problems with Netanyahu's previous government and the primary obstacle to better relations. This is a principled position, but Ankara seems to have its chronology incorrect. Israel's land closure of Gaza dates to June 2007 and the naval blockade was implemented in January 2009 -- both under the premiership of Ehud Olmert, who after leaving Likud to join Ariel Sharon in his breakaway Kadima Party has developed a reputation as a centrist. There was no way that Netanyahu was going to reverse Olmert's policies and there is a slim chance that that he would do so now even with Yair Lapid -- who is not actually all that to the left on foreign policy -- in his government.

Even if Israelis had given a resurgent Labor Party the most Knesset seats and its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, was tapped to form a government, Israel's land and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip would remain firmly in place. A left-of-center government simply could not be perceived as being soft on security and Gaza. The cliché "only Labor can make war and only Likud can make peace" was coined a long time ago, but it still holds today. Over the last two decades, Israeli prime ministers have consistently been brought down from the right often over some issue related to the country's security. Politics aside, there really is not much disagreement among the country's major political parties that Gaza poses a threat to Israel's security. If the Turkish demand that Israel must lift its closure of Gaza is serious, and there is little reason to believe that it is not, ties between Ankara and Jerusalem are likely to remain strained.

It is not just the Israeli politics of the Gaza blockade or the actual threat from Gaza that is the problem in Turkey-Israel relations. Those who see an opportunity to restore good ties with the emergence of a new Israeli government or who become positively giddy at every leak of high-level contact between Turkish and Israeli officials -- which the Turks invariably deny -- are not paying close enough attention to Turkish politics. Israel is not popular in Turkey and never really was despite the blossoming of strategic relations between Jerusalem and Ankara in 1996. Those ties served the Turkish General Staff's specific national security and, importantly, domestic political interests at a time when the officers' power was at its height. That was during an era before the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) when public opinion mattered very little in Turkish foreign policy.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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