The Secret History of a Problem

The Israeli-Turkish relationship has experienced ups and downs since 1949, when Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize the State of Israel. And because both countries are partners with the United States in a sensitive region, American policy has an invested stake in that relationship as well—one which occasionally demands active engagement during low ebb periods to prevent the two sides from terminating the relationship altogether.

It is a tricky business, in that the interests of the three countries are asymmetrical. For Israel, good relations with Turkey constituted a keystone to David Ben-Gurion’s “peripheral strategy” of surrounding the Arab states (who surrounded Israel) with friends of the Jewish state, including Iran and Ethiopia. For Turkey, ties to Israel were at first less important strategically but burnished its inclusion in the Western security system without jeopardizing its ties with pro-Western Arab countries. For the United States, Turkey’s membership in NATO turned it into an important partner as long as the Cold War posited the USSR as the key adversary, but the special relationship with Israel came to have a Cold War-bound strategic significance of its own on the edge of NATO’s ambit. Just as, with the Israeli approach, the enemy of thy enemy is thy friend, American leadership preferred working with a pair of friendly allies to working with a pair of antagonistic ones (of the Greek-Turkish variety, for example).

The most recent decline in Israeli-Turkish relations was punctuated by the ill-fated Israeli raid on the MV Mavi Marmara in May 2010. But the deterioration of Israeli-Turkish relations had begun before that incident, largely instigated by Turkish political/ideological proclivities and perceptions of relative economic interests. Indeed, the Mavi Marmara incident itself was more consequence than cause of that downturn, though it is true that Israeli errors before, during and after the incident managed to make the worst of a bad situation. Getting out from under the Mavi Marmara’s shadow, which has involved extensive, quiet U.S. mediation, has proven difficult for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is a kind of historical secret, the knowledge of which makes otherwise inscrutable behaviors intelligible. What secret? Listen, and I will tell you.

On the night of June 10, 1982, a caravan of trucks and buses lined a road leading up to the Jussiyeh checkpoint on the Lebanese-Syrian border. The majority of those waiting in evening heat were fleeing the carnage that had just erupted in Beirut. It had been only four days since the Israel Defense Forces entered Lebanon, and the capital was already under siege.

For months, Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization had fired rockets on the towns of northern Israel. Though the IDF had previously conducted brief military operations into Lebanon to deter PLO activity, these incursions had achieved only limited results. Diplomatic efforts to persuade Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel into action were to no avail. The country was in the midst of a civil war, and PLO operations continued unchecked.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin vowed “there will not be a single Katyusha in Kiryat Shmona”, and he did not intend to back down. On June 6, under the command of Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan and military hero-turned-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel launched “Operation Peace for Galilee” with the intention of establishing a buffer zone deep enough into Lebanese territory to end the rocket fire once and for all. Sharon was given control of the operation and within days had convinced Begin and his cabinet to broaden the scope of the operation and advance on Beirut. (The extension of the operation hoped both to ensure an Israeli victory and to drive the PLO out of Lebanon.)

Anticipating the Israeli advance, thousands of foreigners working in Beirut began to evacuate the city, among them Turkish contractors and laborers who hoped to reach Homs or Damascus the following day and then secure a way back to their families across the border into Turkey. A weak domestic economy had forced them to find employment abroad; roughly 70,000 of their compatriots worked in Lebanon at the onset of the war, a small portion of those Turkey then “exported” across the Middle East.1 Crammed onto buses, they left Beirut on June 9, drove along the Baalbeck Road and reached the Jussiyeh checkpoint, near the Syrian town of Qusayr, the following day. But lacking proper visa paperwork, Syrian authorities refused them entry. Asleep aboard the buses, the Turks hoped for better luck with the sunrise.

Situated approximately 140 kilometers from Beirut, the Jussiyeh checkpoint was far from the combat zone, but Israel’s fear ofSyrian interference called for a watchful eye. According to accounts of those waiting for the border crossing to open, two planes were heard flying overhead in the moonlit night. At four in the morning, the planes returned and unleashed their arsenals across the area. According to the Israeli report, the pilots were targeting the 147th Syrian armored brigade that was using the highway to enter Lebanon and engage with the IDF. By 5:30 a.m., just as the sleepless night turned to dawn, the bombardment reached Jussiyeh. Of 57 Beirut evacuees killed, 11 were Turkish nationals.

The morning following the attack, Alon Liel, Israel’s youthful Chargé d’affaires in Ankara, serving in his second foreign posting, was summoned to meet with Ümit Pamir, a representative of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Middle Eastern department. Pamir relayed the “great sorrow” of the Turkish government following the attack and stated that Turkey’s intended to file a formal claim for compensation on behalf of the families of the victims.

The incident at Jussiyeh was a tragic turn for Israeli-Turkish relations. Despite being the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, Turkey remained internally conflicted about the relationship. During the 1960s, the Turks adopted a pro-Arab policy after it became clear that the United States and Israel would not support their position with regard to Cyprus.  Similarly, the 1980 military coup ushered into power a cadre of individuals, among them ?lter Türkmen and future Prime Minister Turgut Özal (1983–89), who believed that warming ties with the Arab world—aided by a critical public stance toward Israel—would help solve the country’s economic woes. Knesset ratification of the Jerusalem Law in 1980 and the Golan Heights Law in 1981—both declared null and void by the United Nations—were, simply put, timely excuses to apply this new policy and downgrade diplomatic relations when anti-Israeli rhetoric was trending upward worldwide. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon was simply kindling thrown onto the fire; the Jussiyeh incident was but the last log feeding that fire.

The Jussiyeh incident bears a resemblance to the Mavi Marmara debacle that transformed the Israeli-Turkish “love affair” of the 1990s into the acrimonious relationship of today. But there is more than a resemblance at issue here; there is a precedent. To understand that precedent, we need to examine some details heretofore buried in the archives.

In the chaos of the Lebanon War, tangling with the legal headache of accidentally slain foreign nationals was an afterthought for most Israeli officials and journalists. (It did, however, garner brief attention in the New York Times.) Even for Liel, who in the coming months met with Pamir repeatedly to discuss the Jussiyeh affair, the primary correspondences between Israel and Turkey related to the extradition of PKK and ASALA terrorists captured by the IDF in Lebanon. But due to Israel’s delayed and conflicting responses (days after the incident a senior Israeli official told a Milliyet reporter that if found responsible Israel would pay2), the story persisted in a few Turkish newspapers, and on October 25 the Turkish government issued a formal request for compensation from Israel.

Israel’s investigation into the Jussiyeh affair, under the guidance of legal counsel Elyakim Rubinstein (today a Supreme Court judge), concluded four months later, in February 1983:

The legation would like to underline that while sympathizing with the injured persons and the families of the deceased, nevertheless the presence of the Turkish citizens in the arena of war subjects them to the same danger and consequences of war as that of the local population. International law does not provide for compensation in such cases even if it could be established that damages were caused by Israeli action.3

Turkey rejected this finding. It claimed there were no military targets in the area of the Jussiyeh checkpoint at the time of the airstrike; the Israeli pilots must have mistaken the convoy for a Syrian armored column.

According to Liel, Israel privately addressed the issue from a different angle. “We were concerned that paying compensation to the families of the victims, even from a country like Turkey, would create a dangerous precedent and leave Israel vulnerable to similar cases in the future, and the Turks were well aware of this.”4 Hoping to assuage Israeli fears, Pamir promised that the story would be published “via the various media agencies that the Turkish government has resolved the issue­—without going into details.”5 In short, if Israel would pay, Turkey would keep the matter out of the public domain.

Menachem Begin’s sudden resignation in late August 1983 provided a new spark for the negotiations over the Jussiyeh incident. With the war in Lebanon winding down, Begin’s successor, Yitzhak Shamir, could readdress Israel’s image abroad. Intent on bringing the issue back to the table, Liel sent a summary of events to Jerusalem on August 30 entitled “Turkey: Possibilities for Maintaining Relations.” It alluded to a legal loophole that could potentially resolve the affair:

It would be beneficial to think twice about the question of giving compensation to the families of the deceased and injured in the Jussiyeh investigation. It is upon us to engage with the issue as a humanitarian gesture, with the understanding that we have no legal responsibility or obligation to pay compensation in this specific case. (By the way, it is possible that the Turks will stop bothering us about this if we offer a meeting between our legal representatives to clarify the issue…).

The aforementioned “humanitarian gesture” would have hardly been unique to the Turkish-Israeli relationship. Deteriorating ties notwithstanding, Turkey continued to play an active role in smuggling Syrian and Iranian Jews across its borders and transferring them to Israel.6 “The fabric of our relationship has always been very strong”, Pamir reminisces today; “aspects of the Turkish-Israeli partnership were more important than contemporary disagreements.”7

Because economic conditions in Turkey at the time were so dire, Liel hinted to his superiors that the sum of this ex gratia payment didn’t need to be steep. “I remember discussing in range of $11,000 per family. Not a lot by any means . . . for the families of the deceased it would have felt more significant.”

Alas, Israeli fears of setting a legal precedent prevented the two sides from coming to an agreement. By the time Liel was recalled to Jerusalem in the fall of 1983 little progress had been made. Although receiving the same guarantees for Turkish media compliance by the Assistant Undersecretary to Foreign Minister Türkmen, Oktay Cankarde?, Israel’s new Chargé d’affairs, Eli Shaked, disagreed with Liel’s assertion that a humanitarian gesture in the form of a financial package would be kept discreet by the Turkish government. Nor did he think that Turkish-Israeli ties would improve if Jerusalem agreed to pay compensation. In a November 7 letter Shaked opined: “Any suggestion that this issue is not closed only increases the ‘greed’ of the Turks. Better, in my opinion, to forward to Cankarde? a formal legal opinion that presents our clear cut position on the issue, and puts to rest any possibility whatsoever that Turkey receive compensation from us.”8

Recalling those events thirty years later, Shaked admits that “the topic of compensation had nuisance value, but the Turks weren’t willing to go so far as to sever ties because of it.”9 In the end, Shaked believes, the Jussiyeh affair simply petered out: “Our annual bilateral trade only stood at forty million, it isn’t like today where both parties were concerned about the prospect of losing business. The Turks never made a big fuss.”

Liel, who remains a prominent actor in Israeli-Turkish affairs, remembers the resolution of the Jussiyeh affair differently. “As far as I remember, we handed a check to the Turkish government for compensation to each of the families of those Turks who died.”10

Obviously, Liel and Shaked’s latter day accounts contradict each other, and Israel’s archival records provide little illumination. Israel’s State Archives and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only grant access to classified material after a thirty-year waiting period; neither was willing to share documentation beyond 1983. The last available transcription, dated November 11, 1983, implies that Israel and Turkey had yet to reach an agreement on the Jussiyeh affair. There is no evidence suggesting that Israel ever made an ex gratia payment to Turkey, and based on the logic that any kind of paid compensation would have received media attention, both then and now, it is safe to assume that, as Shaked believes, the episode simply faded from memory.

The contrasting perspectives of these former diplomats are not limited to this particular incident. Statements by Liel and Shaked following the incident aboard the Mavi Marmara shows that, even three decades later, the same ideological schools within Israel’s policymaking circles are still competing for dominance. In September 2011, Liel told the Guardian that Netanyahu was accountable for the continued stalemate with Turkey, claiming, “this government [has] given up on the region.” Though not responding to Liel’s comments directly, Shaked put the onus squarely on Erdogan: “instead of his promised ‘zero problems in the region’, he is adding—in serious quantities—oil onto the fire, creating more conflicts . . . and wherever he has placed his finger in the last ten years the situation has deteriorated.  We (Israel) are retreating into bunkers and shelters because of this Nasser-like boasting . . . we remember that the last leader who boasted like Saladin was Saddam Hussein, and we all know where he is now.”

Since 2010, every angle of the Israeli-Turkish imbroglio has been covered and recovered umpteen times, but the Jussiyeh incident never graced the headlines of any major newspaper. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that the Israeli and Turkish negotiators who recently disagreed about the application of ex gratia compensation over the Mavi Marmara incident were unfamiliar with an event that shares so many contemporary parallels. It is hard to believe, too, that if the Jussiyeh incident had been settled through agreement to mutual satisfaction that the Mavi Marmara affair would have been so difficult to manage.

Not that the incidents are the same. Whereas the Turkish government in 1982 was comprised of secular military officials and economists, today’s ruling AK Party is rooted in Sunni Muslim values. Turkey’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood is more an ideological preference than a strategic one. Moreover, the IAF strike on Jussiyeh was a clear accident—the unfortunate death of innocents in the confusion of war. Not so in the case of the Mavi Marmara, whose passengers armed themselves with makeshift weapons, viciously assaulted the Israeli commandos as there were being lowered onto the ship, thus incurring the lethal response that left nine dead. Had Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly apologized for the incident, as was done following the Jussiyeh affair, perhaps Israel could have avoided the melodrama that followed. His inability to calm Turkish emotions, combined with Prime Minister Erdo?an’s disdain for Israel, contributed to the years of fruitless negotiations (even after an Obama-arranged phone call between the two leaders in March of this year), as the act of apologizing and the act of compensation became increasingly inseparable.

Despite all the differences between the two incidents, they have enough in common to suggest certain lessons. First, both incidents reveal the divide between public and private approaches to foreign policy. It is often easier to resolve conflicts if they are treated out of the glare of the public gaze, or if the promise of discretion is credible. Second and perhaps more important, they show that disagreements can be disaggregated from the larger relationship even in times of high emotion and extreme tension if leaders keep their heads about them.

As to Jussiyeh in 1982–83, though practicing a pro-Arab policy, Turkey’s leadership did not regard the accidental death of its citizens as a sufficient reason to sever relations with Israel. Even Sabra and Shatila weren’t enough. In the face of political strain, and the limited nature of their economic partnership, Turkey and Israel continued to cooperate wherever common ground could be found.

This seems to contrast sharply with Prime Minister Erdo?an’s more recent vitriolic outbursts against Israel, leading one to wonder what has happened to the mature pragmatism of the Turkish political elite. But the contrast, while real, is not absolute. Israel and Turkey today share a bilateral trade relationship agreement worth in excess of $4 billion annually. They also increasingly share strategic concerns about Syria and Iran, and continue to have the same great power patron in the United States. In a sense, a network of interests joins Israel and Turkey more closely together than ever before. As long as the leaderships of these two countries do not completely screw up, these interests, under a watchful American eye, will serve as a bulwark in the face of occasional rogue incidents like the Mavi Marmara and the long since forgotten Jussiyeh affair.



1Diplomatic cable from the Israeli Consulate in Ankara (Alon Liel) to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Middle Eastern Department (MFA/ME), wired at 5:45 p.m., June 11, 1982.

2Diplomatic cable from Alon Liel to MFA/ME, wired at 9:36 a.m., June 14, 1982.

3Document No. 34/181/2 from Israel Legation in Ankara, February 25, 1983.

4Alon Liel, interview with the author, May 6, 2013.

5Diplomatic cable from Alon Liel to MFA/ME, wired at 4:00 pm April 4, 1983.

6Letter from George E. Gruen to FAD File, The American Jewish Committee, September 16, 1982, p. 3.

7Ümit Pamir, interview with the author, May 20, 2013.

8Letter from the Eli Shaked to MFA/ME and Alon Liel, November 7, 1983.

9Eli Shaked, interview with the author, May 13, 2013.

10Alon Liel, interview with the author, May 6, 2013.

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Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey