Arthur I. Cyr: Israel and Turkey slowly, steadily reconcile

Arthur I. Cyr More Content Now

An important meeting has been held to pave the way for reestablishing diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey. On December 16, senior leaders from both nations met in Zurich to lay the groundwork for this important step forward. Ties between these two important allies of the United States were ruptured more than five years ago.

In March 2013, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel reached out the hand of peace by telephoning Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to apologize. Often belligerent ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu was making amends for the notorious incident in 2010, when Israeli armed forces boarded a Turkish ship attempting to deliver humanitarian supplies to occupied Gaza. Israel marines killed nine civilian Turkish activists in the incident, and once solid ties between the two nations plummeted.

The call was the right thing to do, and also a successful start down the long road of repairing relations between the two once close allies. The conversation occurred at Ben Gurion Airport in Tal Aviv. President Barack Obama, who was on the point of departure from a successful visit to Israel, brokered the conversation. The U.S. leader rightly deserves considerable credit for engineering this rapprochement.

In June 2012, a Syrian missile destroyed a Turkish F-4 fighter aircraft. Rather than responding in kind, Ankara seized the opportunity to strengthen NATO ties. The incident bolstered collective international efforts to bring down the Syria government. Turkey was added to a Geneva summit of United Nations Security Council members to address the Syrian civil war. The rise of ISIS has reinforced this cooperation.

Turkey is a pivotal nation, Western in practices with a Muslim majority population. The successful revolution in the 1920s led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established Turkey’s secular constitution.

Since 2002, Turkey has been governed by the Islamic Justice and Development Party, with substantial popular support reinforced in elections in 2007, 2011 and 2015. Relations with the military have been tense but manageable. The people remain committed to representative government, an effective counter against ISIS and other extremist movements.

Erdogan as prime minister and now president has been provocative, but Turkey maintains representative government. The nation effectively participates in international organizations, including NATO leadership responsibilities in Afghanistan. Turkey has headed the G20 through 2015, including a productive summit immediately after the Paris terrorist attacks.

Turkey commands vital sea lanes and trade routes, including the Strait of Bosporus, and oil and gas shipping avenues. The nation’s economy has left behind an earlier reputation as sluggish and corrupt. Turkey’s trade and investment with Eastern Europe and Central Asia grows, rendering long-frustrated application for European Union membership less important.

Ankara-Washington cooperation is strongly rooted. Developments since 9/11 have strengthened Turkey’s diplomatic and military roles. During the first Persian Gulf War, U.S. B-52 bombers were deployed on Turkish soil, a potentially risky move by Ankara. Turkey played a vital Allied role during the Korean War; the UN military cemetery at Pusan contains a notably large number of Turkish graves.

The Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq was bitterly opposed by Ankara. As predicted, Kurdish separatists based in Iraq have been freed to attack Turkey, leading to retaliatory military strikes across the northern border.

Obama made a point of visiting Turkey at the start of his administration. Brokering renewed communication with Israel clearly was a smart move, generating continuing momentum.

Serious American policy leadership, beyond rhetoric alone, is essential to Mideast stability.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of ‘After the Cold War’ (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu