How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On Tuesday, three machine gun-wielding suicide bombers attacked Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, killing 41 and injuring hundreds. News of the attack quickly overshadowed the week’s other major development in the country: a deal to normalize relations between Turkey and Israel after a six-year falling out. Although the two events might seem unrelated, they are connected in that one of the major factors driving reconciliation was cooperation on intelligence and counter-terrorism. Whether the deal will survive long enough for such benefits to be realized is a question that only becomes more urgent after the horrific terrorist attack.
Israel and Turkey’s announcement that they had agreed on the terms of their reconciliation came after years of false starts. Under the deal, Israel will pay Turkey $20 million in compensation for the nine Turkish citizens killed during the raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010, allow Turkey to send humanitarian supplies to Gaza via the Israeli port city of Ashdod, and permit Turkey to support building projects in Gaza, including a hospital, power plant, and desalination plant. In return, Turkey has promised to end the lawsuits still pending in its courts against four high-ranking Israeli military officials involved in the flotilla raid, stop Hamas from launching or financing terrorist operations against Israel from Turkish territory, and intercede with Hamas on Israel’s behalf to secure the return to Israel of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers being held in Gaza. Both sides have also agreed to return their ambassadors to the other country and to drop any remaining sanctions against each other.
On paper, this all sounds great, and there is no question that reconciliation can theoretically help both sides. The drivers of past aborted attempts at normalization, namely potential energy cooperation and coordination on Syria and counter-terrorism, are still at work, and there are benefits for both sides to be realized. Nonetheless, the celebrations in Jerusalem and Ankara are more likely than not to be short-lived for two reasons: the parameters of the deal may be more difficult to abide by than appears at first glance, and the entire structure could well fall apart at the first sign of the inevitable next round of fighting in Gaza.
Because Israel formally apologized to Turkey in March 2013 and only now has to now transfer the money for compensation, its side of the bargain is unlikely to face many hurdles, particularly after Israel’s security cabinet on Wednesday voted seven to three in favor of the deal. Israel had already offered to facilitate the passage of Turkish humanitarian supplies to Gaza through Ashdod subject to Israeli inspection, and so, although snags may occur, Israel’s commitments under the agreement are relatively straightforward.
Turkey’s commitments to Israel, however, are bound to run up against the limits of Turkish domestic politics and Turkey’s regional influence. For example, Ankara has repeatedly requested that its courts drop the lawsuits against Israeli officers. The courts have refused because the families of those aboard the Mavi Marmara and the IHH—the group that organized the flotilla and that has been accused of having ties to al Qaeda—have refused to drop them. The Turkish government has no standing in the case. To get around that problem, Turkey intends to simply pass legislation invalidating any current lawsuits against IDF officers and soldiers stemming from the flotilla. Although this is a creative solution, it is bound to be enormously controversial in Turkey, where the victims’ families and the IHH both have massive public support. In fact, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is already taking fire over the accord in Turkey, where #IsrailinDostuErdoğan (Erdoğan, friend of Israel) has been trending on Twitter, and not in a complimentary way. Although Erdogan tends to get what he wants, the public outcry may make passage of the legislation in the Grand National Assembly less automatic than other presidential priorities.
Even thornier will be fulfilling the parts of the deal pertaining to Hamas. Turkey held the line on expelling Hamas from Turkey altogether (something Israel wanted). The negotiators instead promised to rein in Hamas’ activity, but how its efforts will be monitored or enforced is anyone’s guess. Should there be terrorist attacks in Israel that Jerusalem suspects were planned and executed from Istanbul, Turkey will be hard pressed to definitively prove that Israel is mistaken. Further, with Erdogan having cultivated a close relationship with Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal for the better part of a decade, it is doubtful that the Turkish president will be more inclined to be harsh with Hamas than to maintain plausible deniability in the face of any evidence about Hamas attacks emanating from Turkish territory. Finally, Turkey’s pledge to pressure Hamas into returning the Israeli civilians and bodies of the soldiers is based on a calculation that Hamas’ political wing, with which Turkey has influence, is the ultimate arbiter of this issue, rather than its military wing, which tends to operate according to its own whims. That seems like a risky bet.
Even if Turkey is able to fulfill its promises regarding Hamas activity, the deal still has a fatal flaw: it depends on continued quiet in Gaza, which is a long shot. The two years of quiet since Operation Protective Edge enabled this deal, but conditions in Gaza have not improved since the last round of fighting, and, in recent times, fighting has broken out every two years. That neither side is eager to rejoin the battle may not matter; the last Gaza war, which lasted 50 days in the summer of 2014, was one that neither Israel nor Hamas appeared to want but were unable to stop.
Although no one can predict with certainty when another war in Gaza will break out, another round of fighting seems inevitable, and with it will come the end of the current Israeli-Turkish detente. The Turkish public still has low opinions of Israel, and Erdogan will be forced to recall his ambassador at the first sign of Palestinian civilian casualties, not to mention what will happen if any nascent Turkish building projects are struck by Israeli fire. Israel, meanwhile, would be hard pressed to retain normal relations with Turkey once Erdogan began his instinctual verbal broadsides against Israel, which in the past have included comparing Israel to Hitler and calling Zionism a crime against humanity. Turkish-Israeli rapprochement, in short, is resting on a house of cards that will be easily blown over at the first sign of Israeli-Palestinian trouble.
And even before fighting breaks out, Egypt will put pressure on Israel to back away from closer relations with Turkey given the current tensions between Cairo and Ankara. If there is one regional ally that Israel will go out of its way not to antagonize, it is Egypt. That Turkey will now be launching construction projects in Gaza is bound to cause even more friction between Erdogan and the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government, which wants to limit Turkish influence in Gaza and also wants to avoid opening any escape hatch for Hamas. Egypt will no doubt make its displeasure known to Israel. Although such an eventuality did not prevent the deal from being finalized, Egypt’s ability to play spoiler should not be discounted.
Normalization of ties between Israel and Turkey is a good thing, but expectations should be kept in check. It is unlikely that the rapprochement will play out the way both sides intend, and it may not be too long before we are once again talking about how to get Israel and Turkey back together. The Istanbul terrorist attack only reinforces that renewed ties between the two is more important than ever, and it will be up to both governments to keep this in mind each time events inevitably transpire that subject closer relations to a renewed rupture.