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Reset: Why Erdogan is mending (some) fences

Reset: Why Erdogan is mending (some) fences
Published 7 Jul 2016 

Economics and ethnic solidarity both played a role in the rapprochement reached between Israel and Turkey and economics is also a motivating factor in Turkey's recent overtures toward Russia.

There is a reason why Turkish President Recep Erdogan refers to a 'common history and common culture' in all his speeches. Those words are meant for those who live outside of Turkey's borders but share a common heritage and ethnic background and on whose behalf Turkey will not be slighted.

The breaking point in Israeli-Turkish relations came on 29 January 2009 in Davos when Erdogan and Israeli President Simon Peres took part in a panel discussion titled 'Gaza: the Case for Middle East Peace'. Erdogan, then prime minister, was not impressed by the way Peres addressed him. When the moderator moved to close the panel, Erdogan interrupted. He turned to Peres, suggested he had a guilty conscience and told him: 'When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill'.  When the moderator again tried to intervene, Erdogan  abruptly walked out, never to return to Davos again. Although Peres later called Erdogan and apologised, the wound festered.

Then, on 1 June 2010, the Israeli navy stormed the 'Mavi Marmara', a ship carrying aid to Gaza, killing eight Turkish activists and one other. Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel and expelled the Israeli ambassador from Ankara. Almost three years later, after Barack Obama intervened, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Erdogan and apologised for the incident and promised compensation to the families of those killed. Erdogan accepted the apology in the name of Turks. Since then, both countries have sought to normalise political and economic relations but negotiations were protracted.

The frosty relations between the two countries did not have much impact on trade and economic growth with the exception of tourism. A previously lively two-way tourism trade that had benefited both nations became moribund.  As Turkey's fights on other fronts — led by Syria — increased its economic burden, this impact became harder to bear.

The rise of ISIS, first in Iraq and then in Syria,  galvanised Turkey, already alert to the danger on its backdoor. While Turkey supported the Syrian opposition forces against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it soon became clear that ISIS, PYD (the Democratic Union Party; a Kurdish political party) and YPG (People Defence Units, the armed wing of PYD) posed a far greater danger.

Turkey was then taken by surprise when in September 2015 Russia allied with Iran, supported the Syrian regime forces and declared all opposition forces to be terrorists.  On the morning of 24 November 2015 a Russian warplane (SU-24) entered Turkish airspace, ignored repeated warnings, and was shot down by a Turkish jet. In retaliation, Russia slapped embargoes on trade with Turkey, putting further strain on the economy. Turkey's ongoing fight with PKK (the Kurdish Workers Party), had also taken a toll, especially as resources were stretched to breaking point by refugees. Some  three million people have taken refuge in Turkey since the start of Syrian crisis, and in March, Turkey indicated it had spent about $US10 billion dollars accommodating them.

Aware of all this, and under Increasing pressure from Turkey's tourism sector and the country's farmers, suffering the affects of the Russian embargo, Erdogan has clearly concluded the time had come to mend some fences. [fold] Thus reconciliation with Israel and Russia has materialised. Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim read the terms of agreement between Israel and Turkey on 27 June. These allow for Turkish investment and aid deliveries to Gaza through the port of Ashod, in Southern Israel.  On Sunday a Turkish ship carrying 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid docked in Ashod. Turkey also plans to deliver a housing project, an industrial area at Jenin in the northern West Bank, and a 200-bed hospital.

The Israeli Government has also agreed to pay $US20 million in compensation to the families of those who were killed on Mavi Marmara. In return Turkey will pass a law forcing families to abandon efforts to take legal action against Israeli solders involved in the attack. Netanyahu told  his people the agreement would be  positive for Europe,  particularly with regard to the natural gas discovered in the Mediterranean which is possibly a reference to a pipeline that could through Turkey to Europe.

Given current circumstances, an agreement with Russia in the near future would not be a  surprise. Putin had a promising phone conversation with Erdogan on 29 June. The embargo on the Russian tourists visiting Turkey is to be lifted and the two leaders will soon meet in person.  Although Russian media claimed that Erdogan apologised for the shooting down of the plane, according to the Turkish media, this was an expression of condolences and sympathy for the family of the pilot killed, rather than a formal apology. There are complex nuances here. The Turkish public believes that Russia has no right to accuse Turkey of helping ISIS while Russia has bombed many civilians in Syria rather than ISIS.  

This ongoing normalisation of relations may help Turkey overcome the obstacle to possible entry to the EU posed by PYD and YPG terrorist organisations.  However it came at a high cost, in the shape of a bloody attack on Ataturk Airport on 28 June. The three suicide bombers went off one after the other, killing 42 and wounding other 239 people. Tourists were clearly targeted. It was a warning to never visit Turkey. 

Despite this horrific attack, Erdogan’s fence-mending initiatives should be viewed a win for his country, however he has made it clear there are limits. In recent days, he has ruled out a reconciliation with Egypt. Since 2013 when the Egyptian military ousted Eygptian president Mohamed Morsi, an ally of Erdogan's government, relations between the two nations have been cool.

Photo by Turkish Presidency / Yasin Bulbul/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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