On March 22, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel reached out the hand of peace by telephoning Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to apologize. Often belligerent "Bibi" Netanyahu was making amends for the notorious incident in 2010, when Israeli armed forces boarded a Turkish ship attempting to deliver humanitarian supplies to occupied Gaza.
Israel’s marines killed nine civilian Turkish activists in the incident, and once-solid ties between the two nations plummeted. The call was not only the right thing to do, but also a successful start down the long road of repairing relations between the two formerly close allies.
The conversation occurred at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. President Barack Obama, who was on the point of departure from his successful visit to Israel, brokered the conversation. The U.S. leader rightly deserves considerable credit for engineering this rapprochement.
The particularly effective last act of the Israel visit may prove the most important of Obama’s trip to the Middle East, thanks primarily to Turkey’s steadily expanding regional and international roles. Last June, a Syrian missile shot down a Turkish F-4 jet fighter.
Some expected war. Instead, Turkey’s government in Ankara expanded air defenses and troops on the border, consulted NATO and worked within international law. Ironically, Syria’s aggressive missile launchers increased the growing isolation of their government.
The destruction of the Turkish plane bolstered the collective international effort to bring down the Syria government. Turkey was added to the June Geneva summit of UN Security Council members to address the Syrian civil war.
Turkey is a pivotal nation, Western in practices with a Moslem majority population. Since the successful revolution in the 1920s led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the government of Turkey has been constitutionally secular. The army has served as watchdog to keep religion at bay.
Since 2002, Turkey has been governed by the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), with substantial popular support reinforced in elections in 2007 and 2011. Relations with the military have been tense but manageable. The people remain committed to representative government, an effective counter against al-Qaeda and other extremist movements.
Meanwhile, the European Union has turned Turkey’s application for membership into endless ordeal. Condescension combined with inefficiency is reflected in the slow motion of Brussels Eurocrats.
Turkey commands vital sea lanes and trade routes, including the Strait of Bosporus, and oil and gas shipping avenues. Last year, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed a $7 billion gas pipeline deal. Turkey’s trade and investment with Eastern Europe and Central Asia grows, effectively leaving behind a restrictive and often elitist European Union.
Ankara-Washington cooperation is strongly rooted. Turkey has been engaged in Afghanistan, including military command responsibilities. During the first Persian Gulf War, U.S. B-52 bombers were deployed on Turkish soil, a potentially risky move by Ankara. Turkey played a vital Allied role during the Korean War; the UN military cemetery at Pusan contains a notably large number of Turkish graves.
The Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq was bitterly opposed by Ankara. As predicted, Kurdish terrorists based in Iraq have been freed to attack Turkey, leading to retaliatory military strikes across the northern border.
Obama made a point of visiting Turkey at the start of his administration. Bringing Israel and Turkey back together provides a nice bookend at the start of his second term.
Washington must continue rebuilding relations with this great nation.