Last updated: 24 March, 2013

Syrian crisis pushed Israel and Turkey to end rift

Syria’s conflict was the key factor that pushed Israel and Turkey, with a little help from US President Barack Obama, to end a bitter rift — but restoring trust will take time, pundits said on Sunday.

And despite the rapprochement, the once-close relationship is unlikely to return to what it was before a botched 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla left nine Turkish nationals dead, sparking a deep diplomatic rift.

Friday’s announcement that Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan had agreed to resume full diplomatic ties after the Israeli premier apologised over the flotilla debacle was an unexpected diplomatic coup pulled off by Obama at the end of a three-day visit to the Holy Land.

According to a lengthy analysis splashed across all of Israel’s Sunday papers, the deal had been worked on for years by Israeli and Turkish officials but was finally brought to fruition by developments in Syria and the intervention of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“The fact that in Syria, the crisis is getting worse by the minute was a major consideration for me,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page, saying the greatest danger was that Damascus’s chemical arsenal could fall into the hands of extremists.

“It is important that Turkey and Israel, which both border Syria can communicate with each other,” he said.

Restoring some measure of stability to a region rocked by the bloody aftermath of the Arab Spring was also a central concern for Washington, Kerry said in Amman late on Saturday.

“The reconciliation between Israel and Turkey is a very important development that will help advance the cause of peace and stability in the region,” he said.

And for Turkey itself — notwithstanding US pressure on both Netanyahu and Erdogan — Syria was also a decisive factor, top-selling Yediot Aharonot said.

“Erdogan softened his position, though not because of Kerry but because of Assad,” wrote columnist Nahum Barnea.

“All three countries are deeply concerned about the possibility of advanced Syrian weaponry — first and foremost chemical weapons — falling into the hands of Hezbollah and global jihad groups.”

National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror, who played a central role in Israeli efforts to mend the relationship, admitted on Saturday that the chemical weapons threat was a major element.

“We’re in a situation where between us and Turkey there is a country which has chemical weapons and is falling apart, and which probably used chemical weapons with very damaging abilities that could spread throughout the whole region,” he told Channel 2 television.

“The more coordination there is between us and the Turks, the easier it will be to deal with a problem that could explode in our face tomorrow morning.”

He denied that the deal had come about as a result of American pressure, saying it had been an Israeli idea.

“We approached the Americans with it, and the Americans helped us consolidate it with the Turks. There have been talks between us and the Turks for a long while,” he said.

As well as improving coordination on Syria, Israel was looking for “more freedom of activity” in the Middle East and elsewhere, he said.

“Turkey is the main body preventing the tightening of cooperation with NATO, which we want,” he told the channel, saying that was set to change.

“This is the beginning. Now we’ll have to sit down together, draw up the understanding, and start implementing it in the field. Slowly but surely, we’ll see how it develops.”

Most pundits said that after the return of each country’s respective ambassadors and Israel’s payment of compensation to the victims, the real work of reconciliation would take time.

“The bitter aftertaste of the affair will not disappear overnight,” said an editorial in the left-leaning Haaretz.

“After the destruction, the work of rehabilitation is now the challenge on the doorstep of the two leaders. They cannot lose any more time.”

But no one was under any illusion about the future.

“There is not going to be any great love now between Turkey and Israel. Relations will be cool, since Erdogan is not about to change his spots,” wrote Yediot commentator Alex Fishman, referring to the Turkish leader’s frequent vocal attacks on Israel.

“But the interests will be doing the talking. If a strategic dialogue begins between Turkey and Israel and positions between the two countries are coordinated — even beneath the radar — that will be good enough.”