An Israeli in Istanbul: changing friction to cooperation

by Naava Mashiah
22 November 2011
Geneva - Only recently, I would not have thought of writing an article about an Israeli visitor to Turkey as it was not considered a rare occurrence. Yet when I landed in Turkey in late October to attend the Istanbul Forum I felt I was crossing into unchartered territory.

The ‘sabre rattling’ between Israel and Turkey following the event last year on the Mavi Marmara, a protest flotilla bound for Gaza in which nine Turkish citizens were killed, has taken relations between the two countries to an all time low. Turkey has demanded an apology from Israel and the latter has refused to do so, saying that its soldiers were attacked when they boarded the ship. Since the incident, the number of Israeli tourists to Turkey has dropped dramatically and Turkey has pulled its tourist attaché from Tel Aviv.

Contrary to what the international media would lead us to think, however, it became quickly clear that Israel is not the centre of attention here. I was almost disappointed when the young clerk at the passport control booth casually stamped my Israeli passport and without further ado I found myself near the baggage claim.

There were slight differences in the city since my last visit in 2008. An abundance of Turkish red flags adorned buildings and stretched between residences. I noticed a greater number of images of women wearing headscarves in the city, particularly on billboards marketing to the growing economic power of conservative Muslims and the ‘Anatolian tigers’ which helped bring the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002. They are now a formidable political and economic power in Turkey.

According to diplomats and government officials present at the Istanbul Forum, an event bringing together politicians, analysts and journalists to discuss Turkey’s relationship with other countries in the region, Turkey is regaining its natural place in the world and the region and should be recognised as a regional leader. Turkey does not seek to impose policies, only "share their own experience", they say. However, a more assertive Turkey which tends to initiate change rather than react to events may be interpreted by Israel as hostile behaviour.

This does not mean that the relations between Israel and Turkey are about to terminate. In fact, there are plenty of shared interests and goals that continue to bind the two countries. Trade, in fact, has increased by 26 per cent since last year. In 2011 trade between the two countries reached $2.8 billion between January and August making Turkey Israel’s seventh largest trade partner in that period. Moreover, the potential for future trade is enormous.

The natural gas recently discovered off Israel’s coast could open a door to new collaborations. The gas produced after domestic consumption will most likely be marketed to Europe, which will create a need for an on-land pipeline to transport the gas to the European market. As it stands, Israel looks set to turn to Greece or Cyprus for this transport. But rather than choosing the path of competition, Israel could choose to construct a pipeline via Turkey to join the Caspian region en route to Central Europe and in doing so ease current tensions between the two countries.

Yet another point of contention which could be turned into an opportunity for cooperation is Turkey’s membership in NATO. Turkey is an indispensable member of NATO. The alliance does not interfere in bilateral relations, but as Israel is a valuable partner for NATO it is in the alliance’s best interest to see the tensions between the two countries ease.

Israel and Turkey also share an ambition to join the EU. Attempts by both countries to reform domestic economic and social conditions in order to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the European Community reveal similarities between them. Although the major stumbling block for both countries in joining the EU is their human rights record, the anti-Israel course is not making it any easier for Turkey to promote its bid. The German Bundestag, for example, complained that it is not easy when two of their allies are not “getting along”.

Despite the low point in the relationship between Turkey and Israel following the event of the Mavi Marmara, relations between the two countries will continue. As I was about to get on a plane back home from Turkey at Ataturk Airport, I looked at the departing flight board where I saw several cities listed: Jeddah, Geneva, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv. I wondered for a moment if Tel Aviv would still be listed as a destination in the future. My gut feeling after my visit is that the mutual interests of Turkey and Israel are ultimately stronger than points of contention.


* Naava Mashiah is CEO of M.E. Links, Senior Consultant at ISHRA and Editor of MEDABIZ economic news. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 22 November 2011,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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