New FM Could Break Ground with Turkey

Nimrod Goren says that Liberman is a symbol of the crisis between the two countries, but the relationship will still need a lot of work.

Gedalyah Reback,

Avigdor Liberman
Avigdor Liberman
Hadas Parush/Flash 90

Israel’s relationship with Turkey is currently in a coma. Since the conclusion of several defense contracts, there has been very little happening outside of commerce. The responsibility for the break might rest more with the Turks than with the Israelis, but considering Turkey has also fallen on tough diplomatic times, Israel should not feel alone in the cold – Jerusalem is waiting on the doorstep with Washington.

If anything is going to change between Jerusalem and Ankara, it will not be for at least several more months when Turkey holds its parliamentary elections. Afterwards though, two new governments (even if Netanyahu and Erdogan are still in their respective drivers’ seats) could have the political fortitude to agree to break the ice.

“A deal is only one part of the story. The overall relationship needs time and a lot of will to move ahead from the situation,” said Dr. Nimrod Goren, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“The Israeli Prime Minister – whoever that may be – and President Erdogan both have to make the political decision. I think the leadership in both countries are really interested in that. There are too many economic and business interests there,” he added.

Despite the fact the buck stops with the head of state, it could also be that the Foreign Minister involved might impact how the Turks see things. Avigdor Liberman has been the harshest critic of rapprochement with Ankara.

After Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized to (then Prime Minister) Erdogan in a phone call in 2013, Liberman lashed out at Erdogan:

“Erdogan’s tirades against Israel whenever possible, starting with the attack on President Peres in 2009 at the Davos conference and until his statement a few weeks ago that Zionism is racism and a crime against humanity, along with his refusal to apologize for this statement, violate the dignity and status of Israel in the region and the entire world.”

Regardless of the fact that Liberman’s words resonate with many people, they won’t smooth over relations with Turkey, implies Goren. In fact, Avigdor Liberman’s personal influence might be more of a cloud over bilateral ties than either Netanyahu or Erdogan.

“Regarding Israel and Turkey there requires some sort of leadership change. Buji (Yitzhak Herzog) would open things up, but not as much as a new Foreign Minister. A new government without Avigdor Liberman as Foreign Minister would be big because he is seen as blocking or opposing any sign of moderation.”

“If the same leadership emerges in both countries, then it won’t be easy,” says Goren. Yet, if Lieberman is no longer Foreign Minister then “Israel would have a different minister who would be able to engage with diplomats on a professional level.”

“There is a personal component in the relations. The content is essentially solved, I believe.”

Triangular Crisis
US-Turkish relations have also sunk to a new low. While writing this piece, Turkey lashed out at Secretary of State John Kerry for his offer to talk to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey blames all of Syria’s problems on Assad and demands his removal from office.

President Obama called Turkey a “strong, vibrant, secular democracy” in front of Turkey’s Frand National Assembly in 2009. For all the effort to reach out to Turkey, Turkey has ignored the US.

The United States is facing a difficult task organizing a fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but has run into numerous roadblocks with the Turks. For all the disputes between experts who think Turkey is sponsoring ISIS or has its hands tied combatting them, a larger factor holding Turkey back from being supportive of the US effort is that the United States is not interested in fighting the Assad regime.

“Turkey’s main argument is that the Assad regime is the primary problem and it is (therefore) necessary to address the Assad regime first and focus on regime change there before you can take care of ISIS.”

“It would be easier if they showed more willingness to topple Assad,” says Goren. “Saying they’re willing to negotiate with Damascus widens that gap considerably.”

The US has to deal with Erdogan though, so in light of John Kerry’s comments it seems to have just gotten immeasurably more difficult. The Obama Administration has seen strained ties across the Middle East, particularly because of its balk at using force in certain situations and very open stance toward Iran. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey are all frustrated with American policy.

“Turkey is important for practical reasons. The Americans need to maintain ties with those countries as allies.”

President Obama’s concerns come up though on matters of Turkish democracy. The country has become increasingly authoritarian and suppressive of rights to free speech. Erdogan also has followed Russian President Vladimir Putin in moving between positions as Prime Minister and President, while simultaneously changing which position wields more power.

The administration is under growing pressure to punish Turkey for its behavior with Kobane and continued reluctance to help the coalition. A recent article by Max Hoffman and Michael Werz of the Center for American Progress says “after years of US political investment . . . differences have become impossible to ignore.”

“There is less enthusiasm for the relationship with Erdogan than there was four years ago, but the general approach (to US-Turkey relations) needs to stay the same.”

Triangular Solutions?
“It’s not so much three bilateral crises as much as it is a singular, triangular one. Each of these channels needs progress,” says Goren.

Despite trying to mediate the negotiations and urging Netanyahu to pick up the phone in 2013, the Obama Administration is at a loss.

“Overall, the US is less involved in the Israeli-Turkish relationship. They are not satisfied with the conduct of either country and it seems the Americans don’t have the motivation to mediate.”

Between Israel and Turkey, everything hinges on what happens with the Palestinians. Any progress with the Turks would be undone if Israel proverbially rocked the boat on that issue (pun intended).

“If the Turks and Israelis reach an agreement and there is another crisis with the Palestinians months later, it will blow things up.”

“Everything is tied to the Palestinian track.”

When asked if he saw mending ties as mutually beneficial for Israel’s and Turkey’s respective foreign policy problems, he was not too confident.

“Israel and Turkey have different situations. Turkey once had leverage over several countries in the Middle East. Israel did not have that advantage and had to work through back channels. They (in Turkey) wanted a leadership position that did not work out.”

It might be a matter of time though for things to come together. Again though, it will depend on the fateful decision to move forward.

“The relationship is terrible between the two of them, but they have had the cooperation to find a solution. Delegations were sent to Turkey and the details of a deal were worked out, but at the moment of truth there was no signature.”