There is official evidence and credible speculation that Turkey and Israel may be on the brink of a historic handshake. Some say that it may be a matter of weeks, some speak of a couple of months before old friends, new foes, Turkey and Israel, will befriend each other once again. Probably until they become foes once again.
Ankara and Jerusalem look like two teenagers being forced into an unwilling date by their classmates, friends, foes and schoolteachers, and also because they feel alone and threatened; not because they feel even halfheartedly warm toward one another. They are nervously, grudgingly going on their date.
After nearly six years, staggering diplomacy and pragmatism will probably win over emotions and deep mistrust. Since Turkey and Israel downgraded their diplomatic ties in 2010, Turkey’s Islamist leaders have been careful about distinguishing between the “Israeli people” and “Israeli government.” Deviating from that rhetoric for the first time, Omer Celik, spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party, said that “the Israeli state and people are friends of Turkey.” That was a powerful confidence-building effort on Turkey’s part.
Celik’s statement found an echo in Israel. On January 23, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he was hopeful about normalization of ties with Turkey, and that normalization would be good for both countries.
But, as peace looked to be blossoming, reality showed its face. Speaking in Athens, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon bluntly told the world where he sees Turkey in the global fight against Islamic terror. The Turkish government has to decide, he said, “Whether they want to be part of any kind of cooperation in fighting terrorism, [and] this is not the case so far.” More disturbingly, Ya’alon said that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) “enjoyed Turkish money for oil for a very, very long period of time,” that Turkey allowed jihadists to move from Europe to Syria and back home, and that Turkey still hosts Hamas’s “external terrorist brokers in Istanbul.”
All that, under different circumstances, would have triggered a prompt and strong backlash from Ankara. Surprisingly — or not — Ankara remained unusually mute and mature. The denial of Ya’alon’s allegations came from Ankara, but not from the Turkish government. The U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, rejected the Israeli minister’s claims and insisted that there is no evidence to support the allegations. Bass said: “In fact, ISIS oil smuggling has decreased over time, due to the efforts of Turks and other counter-ISIS coalition members to target oil extraction and transportation infrastructure. Turkey continues to take steps to improve the security of its border with Syria, working with the United States and other international partners.”
Why were the Turks — always childishly angry at any accusation from Israel — silent, and why did the U.S. ambassador jump in like a referee in a boxing ring? It is vital for U.S. interests that the country’s two Middle Eastern allies stop their feud and shake hands. And the American ambassador wanted to diffuse a potentially explosive dispute before it seriously began.
Yet the ground is, and will probably remain, shaky in the Turkish-Israeli dating scene. Recent research found that nearly 60% of Turks view Israel as a security threat to their country. Worse, anti-Semitism in Turkey, fueled in recent years by the same Islamist government that now shyly wants to make peace with Israel, does not allow the Turks to be aware that it is time to be a bit more mature and a lot more pragmatic.
Turkish vandals spray-painted graffiti on a synagogue in Istanbul, just days after a one-time prayer service was held — the first in 65 years. They wrote on the external walls of the building, “Terrorist Israel, there is Allah,” in white paint.
“Writing anti-Israel speech on the wall of a synagogue is an act of anti-Semitism,” said Ivo Molinas, editor-in-chief of Salom, a weekly newspaper of Istanbul’s Jewish community, in an interview with the Turkish newspaper, Today’s Zaman.
That will be the problem after any possible Turkish-Israeli handshake. Diplomacy is about ups and downs. But stereotypes and public perceptions of who is the foe or friend are often sticky. Turkey’s ruling Islamists have systematically nurtured and exploited anti-Semitic sentiments. Now that the nearest election is four years away and there is no longer an emerging Turkish empire on the Arab Street, government-sponsored anti-Semitism in Turkey is suddenly supposed to be a thing of the past. By a simple twist of fate, the architects of Turkish anti-Semitism will now have to use the same propaganda machine they used to fuel anti-Semitism to diffuse it if they want a sustainable courtship with their old Jewish friends.