Yom Kippur, Israel and Turkey
By Leigh Nusbaum
There is a saying in my High Holy Day siddur, the Gates of Repentance, that says, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”
This sentence always unnerves me when I hear it. I feel as though I have not received that clean slate that I am supposed to possess upon breaking my fast, that my name’s inscription in the Book of Life is still in question the moment after the Ni’lah service is over.
My own personal fears aside, I do wonder what went through the minds of Israel’s political leaders this Yom Kippur if they heard this line as well, particularly when it comes to the issue of Turkey.
For someone who has visited Israel three times in the last five years and has spent the past summer living and working in Istanbul, I find the breakdown in relations between Turkey and Israel both distressing and disturbing. Eyal Peretz, the head of the Arkadas (Turkish for friend) Association, an Israel-Turkish cultural center in Israel, puts it best, “I’ve seen how a warm relationship has been erased in one fell swoop. It’s very painful, very frustrating.”
The expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to Turkey is the most recent chapter in a disappointing saga that has been several years in the making. In 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a harsh public criticism of Operation Cast Lead, a three-week invasion of the Gaza Strip, at the World Economic Forum, saying to President Shimon Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.”
A year later was Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s “controversial behavior” towards the Turkish ambassador to Israel in 2010, when he stated to Israeli television cameras, “The important thing is that people see that he’s low and we’re high and that there is no flag here.” Ayalon apologized after.
Most notably, later that year, six ships, including the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, attempted to run the Israeli blockade in order to deliver humanitarian supplies to residents of the Gaza Strip. In response, Israeli marines boarded the ship and in the ensuing fight, nine activists were killed—eight Turkish, and one American of Turkish descent. Turkey demanded an apology; Israel refused.
The breakdown in relations between Turkey and Israel, relations that have existed since 1949, will not help either country in the long run. Though Erdogan has in many ways become a hero for the Arab Street and a well-liked leader within his borders, his inflamed statements will hurt Turkey’s EU accession talks, particularly since Israel has increased ties with Cyprus, a country whose northern half is occupied by Turkey and is set to inherit the EU’s rotating presidency in 2012. Turkey and Cyprus have their own share of problems, given that Turkey occupies Cyprus’s northern half. As long as Turkey attacks Israel on the global stage, Israel and Cyprus, will likely grow closer due to their mutual respective rows with Turkey, and likely impede Turkey’s EU aspirations. If relations were to improve between Ankara and Jerusalem, however, Israel could have a chance at helping mediate and eliminate the dispute between Turkey and Cyprus, since Israel and Cyrpus have had strong bilateral relations since the 1990s. Solving the conflict between Turkey and Cyprus would clear one of Turkey’s major roadblocks to EU accession.
Still, Turkey is not alone in this problem. Israel’s continued stubbornness to resolve their relations with Ankara holds potent risks as well. Israel has damaged a relationship with one of the largest Muslim majority countries in the world, a country that at one point not only had decent relations with Israel, but countries like Syria, Lebanon and Iran. While Netanyahu has stated that he does not want Ankara to mediate any future negotiations between Israel and Syria, repairing the Turkish-Israeli relationship makes Turkey uniquely suited to mediate between Syria and Israel more than the United States. Though Israel has no influence on Syria domestically or internationally, Turkey does. Even if Assad is removed from power, Turkey, who like Israel shares a border with Syria, will still have influence on the Arab Republic, especially if the Sunni majority takes over Damascus. Additionally, Turkey would be ideal in relieving the tensions between Israel and Lebanon and even Israel and Iran.
I am not advocating who is right or who is wrong—I am just encouraging both sides to talk. Now is not the time of brinkmanship be it an increased Turkish naval presence in international waters or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatening to openly negotiate with the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK (The PKK is recognized by the United States as a foreign terror organization). Openly trying to destabilize the other country not only decreases respect for Turkey and Israel on the international stage, but it is also a waste of time and money for both. Talking and airing out grievances between one another leads to making peace. Making peace will erase the blemish on an otherwise successful relationship that has lasted over sixty years.