Taspinar Discusses Israeli-Turkish Relations

The fallout continues from last year's bloody confrontation between troops from the Israel Defense Forces and activists aboard a Turkish aid flotilla bound for the Gaza coast. Robert Siegel speaks with Omer Taspinar, a Turkish scholar who is at the National War College and the Brookings institution.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Turkey is downgrading diplomatic relations with Israel, cutting off defense ties, threatening further moves. That as Israel refuses to apologize for the deaths of nine Turks last year. They were part of a flotilla to Gaza that Israel intercepted. A special United Nations panel had urged Israel to make an appropriate statement of regret. The panel also acknowledged the legality of Israel's blockade of Gaza, so Turkey declared the report of that panel null and void.

To get more of a sense of what Turkey's up to, we're talking now with Omer Taspinar, a Turkish scholar who's at the National War College and at the Brookings Institution here in Washington. Welcome.


SIEGEL: First, this crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations, before it, how important a relationship was it?

TASPINAR: Well, the golden age of the relationship between Turkey and Israel was in the 1990s. Traditionally, the relationship was strong. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel. But the deterioration in Turkish-Israel relations is really a story of the last three, four years.

SIEGEL: That means it's not just what happened with the flotilla to Gaza that was the end of this relationship. There were problems well before that.

TASPINAR: There were problems well before that. I think the problems started with the failure of the peace process. And in 2006, first, Israeli military encroachment into Lebanon, the air raids, then the Gaza operation a couple years later and then it doubles. Two years ago at the Dublin Summit, there was a major fallout between Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, but the final point came with the flotilla incident.

SIEGEL: As you wrote in a column about this that I read, Turkey wasn't just demanding an apology. It wasn't just demanding compensation for the victims' families, the victims of the flotilla incident. It also was demanding an end to the blockade of Gaza, a change in Israeli policy.

TASPINAR: Which was very confusing for the Israelis because the Israelis were told by the Turkish foreign ministry that there were two main conditions - an apology and compensation. Yet, the Turkish prime minister, a couple months ago, after the elections, included the third condition. This shows that Turkey feels very self-confident and Prime Minister Erdogan wanted to make it clear to the Turkish public opinion and also to the Arab world that this is not just a bilateral problem with Israel, that Turkey basically wants to play a leadership role on the Palestinian question.

SIEGEL: Does it strike you, given what's happened and how far Turkish-Israeli relations have fallen recently, that this is in any way reparable with any exchange of visits and further mediation or is this really what it's going to be for the next several years at least?

TASPINAR: I think this is a great question. And the Israelis were pondering whether an apology would be enough to put relations back on track and they came to the conclusion that there's something structurally wrong in the partnership right now and that what is missing is not just an Israeli apology or compensation, but in fact the peace process. Therefore, I think, unless we see a major improvement in the Palestinian question, we're not likely to see a normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations.

SIEGEL: You think that from an Israeli perspective the Turkish price for maintaining the old relationship (unintelligible) is too high for them, given what they're about to do?

TASPINAR: Exactly. The third condition that Prime Minister Erdogan put forward, the end of the blockade to Gaza, is something that no Israeli prime minister can contemplate. In that sense, they consider the Turkish attitude as a maximalist attitude and they don't see how an apology would solve the problems. We're very far away from the 1990s, the golden age.

SIEGEL: Omer Taspinar, thank you very much for talking with us.

TASPINAR: Pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Omer Taspinar is a professor at the National War College and also a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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