As Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew to Washington, DC, on Monday, a further war of words has broken out between Turkey and Israel over comments made by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to the press corps on an airplane returning from Kyrgyzstan. The Zaman correspondent heard him to say of Israel, ““It will either apologize, or it will consent to a study by an international commission, or the relations will break off.”
Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister whom Davutoglu apparently declines to deal with, shot back, “”We don’t have any intention to apologize. We think that the opposite is true.” Lieberman, a notorious thug who once advocated drowning all the Egyptians by bombing the Aswan Dam if they ever gave Israel any trouble, is a Moldavian immigrant to Israel not known for being diplomatic.
Davutoglu is probably not serious about presenting Israel with an ultimatum, and may have been especially interested in posturing as a hard liner because he was embarrassed with the Turkish cabinet and in the Arab world when it came out that he had had a secret meeting with Israeli Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer last week. Ben-Eliezer, an Iraqi from Basra originally named “Fuad,” had earlier in his career been a hard liner, but compared to Lieberman he has emerged as a voice of reason. Davutoglu was widely criticized in Turkey and Arab capitals for the secret talks.
Lieberman’s response also probably reflected more his own wounded ego than national policy, since Netanyahu sent Ben-Eliezer to dicker with Davutoglu without letting the Israeli foreign minister know about the mission.
In short, I think the trading of barbs has to do with political personalities rather than national policy. I don’t think the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan actually believes it would be in Turkey’s interest to cut off diplomatic relations with Israel, and I have difficulty taking Davutoglu’s tough talk seriously in that regard. Davutoglu was until recently a professor of international relations at Marmara University rather than a lifetime diplomat, and academics in politics are notorious for speaking their minds too frankly (after all, it is what they do).
It is also true that Turks’ blood is still boiling about Israeli commandos’ killing of 8 Turkish aid workers and an American of Turkish origin on the Mavi Marmara. Turks are nationalists to a fault, and do not feel that they can let an affront to their nation of that magnitude pass. That wounded national pride is the point of asking for an apology. Israeli officials would be wise to find some mutually agreeable formula that could be called an “apology” and just issue it. I fear that Israeli intransigence comes in part from not being willing to treat the Turks as equals. If, under similar circumstances, 8 Israeli civilians had been killed by a NATO country, Tel Aviv would certainly expect an apology at the least.
But, from the point of view of the Likud Party and Yisrael Beitenu, being Israeli means never having to say you are sorry.
Turkey does not have much to lose, however, from pressing Israel hard for an apology. Just as an example, take the fall-off in Israeli tourism to Turkey. It is being said 100,000 out of 150,000 Israelis with reservations in Turkey have cancelled them at least temporarily, and that 50,000 Israeli tourists have cancelled their reservations permanently. Some travel agents are estimating the loss at $400 million.
But in fact, the Israeli tourism market is increasingly irrelevant to the Turkish economy. In 2009, Turkey hosted 27 million tourists. Moreover, its tourist market is rapidly changing. Instead of just receiving as visitors relatively frugal Western Europeans, Turkey has increasingly attracted an Arab clientele. Some 105,000 Arabs came as tourists to Turkey in May, up 33% over the same period last year. Moreover, the Arabs are much bigger spenders than the Europeans. The extra 35,000 Arab extra tourists in May are likely to have been big spenders (dropping $5 million on a wedding in Istanbul is not unheard of). They likely replaced any lost income from the Israelis, and it is expected that the Arab proportion of Turkey’s tourism industry will increase rapidly.
I pointed out last week that the proportion of Turkey’s external trade that is with the Middle East has gone from 14% in 2004 to 20% today, and is now worth nearly $30 bn. a year, whereas Turkey does only $2.5 billion a year in trade with Israel.
Another Turkish demand, in order to end the tiff, is that Israel lift the blockade of civilians in Gaza. Netanyahu ordered some cosmetic changes, but essential building and other materiel will not be allowed in. Moreover, the sheer volume of trucks let through will be far, far less than the volume of trucks allowed through in 2006 before the Israeli Right implemented the blockade..
Netanyahu will likely offer Obama more of these essentially phony peace moves in Washington. The tensions between Israel and Turkey will therefore boil along. But likely everyone will graciously let Davutoglu forget he spoke so categorically or issued an ultimatum. Rocky relations, yes. No relations? Unlikely in the medium term.