Don’t trip at the finish line!

Israel and Turkey seem so close to rapprochement, you can almost smell the baklava in the air.

Nearly four years have passed since Israeli commandos, while boarding the Turkish vessel MV Mavi Marmara, the flagship of a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid and no small number of anti-Israel belligerents, killed nine passengers in their attempt to seize the ship. Four miserable years of disputed investigations, sober negotiations, and incendiary comments by Israeli and Turkish politicians alike followed.

Now it appears that an agreement, which calls for Israel to pay $20 million in compensation to the families of those slain on the ill-fated ship, has been drafted and is now waiting approval from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But, as reported by multiple sources, ten days have passed since Netanyahu was handed the draft and he has yet to reply.

No wonder there have been so many mixed messages coming out of Turkey in the last week.

First, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared in an interview that, “there has recently been a momentum and new approach in compensation talks. We could say that most of the differences have been removed recently in these discussions.” No timeline was offered.

This prompted two responses, one by Prime Minister Erdogan, and another by the head of the NGO that financed the Gaza Flotilla in 2010.

Perhaps miffed with Netanyahu’s delayed response, but more likely for his own domestic gain, Erdogan insisted Tuesday that there would be no deal “without the end of the embargo [on the Gaza Strip],” calming hawkish elements in Turkey opposed to rapprochement. (Because of domestic considerations, it would be surprising if Erdogan allowed rapprochement to take place before local Turkish elections in March.)

Bulent Yildirim, founder of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) which sponsored the flotilla, added that only the families of the Mavi Marmara victims could drop the legal cases against Israeli military personnel in Turkish court, regardless of whether a deal is struck. At least one court has elected to reject one of the cases.

It must be frustrating for Erdogan, who since his outburst in Davos has been dictating the terms of Israel-Turkey relations, to wait for Netanyahu’s reply, and it would be naive to underestimate his ability to torpedo the substantial progress made by the two sides as they approach the finish line, but diplomatic processes are marathons, not sprints.

Netanyahu stuck his neck out last March when, prompted in no small measure by Barack Obama, apologized over the phone to his Turkish counterpart. He received little in return. Eleven months on, the least Erdogan can do is allow Netanyahu to weigh his options before signing off on a precedent-setting compromise – after all, as important as the decision is, it isn’t going to garner him much domestic applause.

When Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat negotiated the terms of an Egyptian-Israeli peace in 1977, Begin nitpicked every legal detail of the accords, driving both Sadat and US President Jimmy Carter mad. It is a cautious style that Netanyahu, in many ways Begin’s ideological heir, employs at almost every level of politics. Like Begin, whose controversial decision to withdraw from Sinai for the sake of peace drove a wedge between him and lifelong friends and allies, Netanyahu knows that agreeing to a $20 million compensation deal will come at a heavy domestic price – perhaps one not worth sacrificing if bigger ones are yet to come.

Ultimately I believe he will agree to terms, but in the meantime Netanyahu should be allowed to chew it over (and let Erdogan stew) as long as necessary. After all, four years have passed, what is another day or two?

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey