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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Israel-Turkey: How TV Sparked a Diplomatic Debacle

(Israel Twitter)Daniel Levy, Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New American Foundation, conducted a "short-notice" conference call on Thursday, with Alon Liel, former Israel Ambassador to Turkey, and Bulent Aras, Professor of International Relations at Istanbul Technical University and the Foreign Policy Coordinator of the SETA Foundation in Ankara. At issue: Can these relations be pulled back from the brink, and what is the fallout likely to be?

The New York Times provides the backdrop to the current crisis between these two nations, which erupted over a Turkish TV show and the subsequent reaction to it in Israel, which inspired Netanyahu's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, to try and humiliate Ambassador Celikkol through furniture choices. I'm being provocatively snarky, but this has turned into political drama:

Two days earlier, Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, summoned Celikkol to complain about ''The Valley of the Wolves,'' a Turkish television drama that shows Israeli security forces kidnapping children and shooting old men. During the meeting, Ayalon forced Celikkol to sit on a low sofa without a handshake and explained to cameramen that the humiliation was intentional.
The incident further strained the complex relations between Israel and Turkey, its closest Muslim ally. Their close military alliance and economic ties already had been hurt by the fury that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyid Erdogan expressed about Israel's war in Gaza a year ago, and by what he considers Israel's aggressive treatment of its neighbors. ...

I thought I'd share my notes from the conference call, which reveal serious tensions that have nothing to do with what Ayalon provoked, and much more to do with the festering tensions over Gaza, which MJ Rosenberg writes about calling for lifting of the Gaza blockade now, that month after month are getting worse and worse. The notes below are a good faith effort on my part to capture as much as possible from the call:

Bulent Aras: Turkey's transformation has changed the relationship with Israel, joining the European Union emphasizing that changing dynamic. There is a "new confidence" that comes with this transformation. Turkey's security depends on that of its neighbors. "Security for all," citing security of Palestinians means security for Israel, as it's all "inter-related." Back in 1998, Turkey and Syria were on the brink of war. But "Turkey doesn't blame its neighbors for it's own domestic problems." Turkey isn't just isn't focused on regional issues, but is globally focused. ... What happened in Gaza very much impacted Turkey's mood. "Just imagine you have concrete," walls, moving towards to a national security state... The Israeli's policy is not helping the problem that Turkey is trying to solve. ... "This is a humanitarian crisis... what Israel is doing in Gaza... is leading to a real tragedy." In the past one year we didn't have one achievement towards a solution. "There is no anti-Semitism in Turkey." First, Israel must stop what's happening in Gaza.

Alon Liel: Israel will soon celebrate "61 years" of diplomatic relationships with Turkey, the first Muslim country to engage Israel. Unbelievable "ups and downs" in that time. The relations kept deteriorating until the mid-1980s, including Turks in Tel Aviv, then with the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon, things got better. Continues talking abut history of diplomacy between the nations, also noting the importance of tourism. ... .. Admits war in Gaza has exacerbated tensions. "Relations were.. damaged in 2009." The overview of the 61 years, Turkey is the one who always decided if the relationship was to be good or bad (paraphrase of statement), "usually for regional reasons." Gaza is such a "sensitive nerve" among Turks. Doesn't see anti-Semites in Turkey leadership, but the blame on Israel always for Gaza, peace process not moving, Palestinians... "so 2010 is going to be another difficult year for relationships."

Daniel Levy: How close were we to a recall of Turkey's ambassador? How much of a meltdown has taken place this week?

Bulent Aras: "Not as pessimistic as Alon." Still believes with Europeans and Obama administration, peace process can improve.

Alon Liel: "The crisis we are having is an on-going crisis that has a lot to do with basic attitudes toward policies in Israel." That he was sitting on a low sofa isn't a real crisis. What Ayalon did was a shame. "As a former diplomat, I'm ashamed. ... We are totally dependent on the peace process." Turkey created this dependence. I hope the Obama administration isn't tired and doesn't give up (paraphrased quote). If we live another year, in 2010, without one day of direct talks, I'm willing to bet that Celikkol won't be here after that.

Daniel Levy: The line above is the news breaker of the call.

Bulent Aras: Just think about Obama coming into office trying to reverse George W. Bush, but then you get Gaza.

Alon Liel: (Asked about domestic ramifications from what's happening now.) You get a very gloomy picture of what's going on in Israel, but it doesn't impact the stability of this gov. "It is a very stable support that Netanyahu is having..." He can also "steal members from Kadima." Nobody is thinking this gov. can be toppled. No political change in Israel, or in content. "We still have a hawkish Prime Minister with a hawkish coalition." If someone is "dreaming" in the U.S. that there will be any changes in the peace process it won't happen.

Bulent Aras: We expect Israel to be on the constructive side. "We live together."

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