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Turkey and Israel need to work to restore strained relationship

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Istanbul/Brussels -   While suspicions in Western capitals about its relationship with Iran and tensions with Israel have dealt setbacks to its “zero-problem” foreign policy, Turkey shares many of the goals of its Western partners and should continue to play an important role in resolving Middle Eastern and other conflicts.

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Turkey’s Crises over Israel and Iran, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, analyses from Ankara’s perspective events since April 2010, particularly friction over policies which have fuelled arguments in the Middle East and Western capitals that the country has made a decisive turn to the East or is basing its foreign policy on an “Islamist” ideology. It finds that while this is not the case, Turkey and Israel in particular need to work to restore their strained relationship.

“Turkey has changed greatly over the past two decades, becoming richer, more self-confident and no longer dependent on Washington or Brussels alone”, says Hugh Pope, Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus Project Director. “Despite the recent crises of confidence, all sides need to remember they still have a lot in common, and these commonalities remain a strong basis for improving stability in the region”.

Previously good ties to Israel gave Turkey a unique status as a go-between in the Middle East, including facilitation in Syrian-Israeli peace talks. But, in a development neither side appears to have foreseen, relations hit a low after Israeli commandos killed eight Turks and a U.S. citizen of Turkish descent on 31 May, while seizing an international aid flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza.

Turkey and Israel should now take advantage of the UN-led panel of enquiry into the tragic incident to repair their relationship. Israel should focus on normalising ties, including, if its soldiers are found to have used excessive force or committed crimes, by prosecuting suspects and finding ways to give Turkey satisfaction in the matter. Ankara should use the enquiry to satisfy Israeli and international opinion about the Turkish activists’ intentions and play its part to improve relations by moving away from maximalist demands and confrontational rhetoric.

At the same time, the report argues that Turkey’s efforts, with Brazil, to secure a diplomatic settlement between Tehran and the international community over an aspect of the nuclear program should not be viewed as Turkey allying with Iran. Ankara had some U.S. encouragement to act as it did, and it has the same aim as its Western partners, namely to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

The distinct crises have given rise to misconceptions about Turkey’s engagement in the Middle East, the main aim of which is to build regional peace and prosperity. The U.S. and the EU should put aside clichés about Turkey “joining an Islamist bloc” or “turning its back on the West”. As a long-standing regional power, Turkey will at times pursue shared goals with its own tactics and methodology, but Ankara, Brussels and Washington can all achieve more working collaboratively in this difficult region.

“Ankara should do, and be encouraged to do, what it can when it sees an opportunity to resolve conflict in close cooperation with the U.S. and EU”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “But it should avoid becoming a party itself to regional disputes and should focus more efforts in its immediate neighbourhood, so as to be a more effective and credible mediator”.

© Crisis International -
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