Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed Israeli policy last week, offering an apology to the Turkish people for the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard the armed Mavi Marmara flotilla headed toward Gaza in 2010. But that apology may have had less to do with Turkey itself than with guarantees relating to Iran or Syria.
“Apologizing to Turkey may clear the deck on one issue to get free reign on other issues,” said Harold Rhode, who worked for 28 years in the Pentagon, including from 1989 to 1990 as the head of the Turkish desk at the Department of Defense. “In almost every case there is more to such diplomatic announcements than meets the eye.”
The apology took place March 22 during a phone call between Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that was brokered by President Barack Obama during the final hours of his visit to Israel.
Reports have stated that in return for Israel’s apology, which includes compensation to the families of the victims and an easing of the blockade on Gaza, Turkey would restore diplomatic relations with Israel, including the formal exchange of ambassadors.
While the apology may have indeed given Obama a diplomatic victory that benefits both Israel and Turkey, there may be additional factors to consider, according to Rhode, who retired from the Pentagon in 2010, just a few months before the Mavi Marmara incident.
“While much of the attention in the region has focused on Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Israel, the situation in Turkey is actually quite fragile,” Rhode said.
“Turkey has enormous internal problems,” he said. “And many people there believe that Erdogan is ruining the future of their country.”
Erdogan is seeking to move up to become Turkey’s president, but he wants to expand the powers of the presidency, making it almost into a monarchy and sultanate, according to Rhode. His party doesn’t have the votes to change the constitution, so Erdogan decided to make concessions to the Kurdish members of the Turkish parliament, offering them more cultural rights within Turkey, in exchange for their votes to change the constitution.
Turkey has the largest Kurdish population of any country in the world. As in northern Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s Kurdish population seeks to control its own destiny.
“[Erdogan] wants to become somewhat like a king, sultan or supreme ruler of Turkey,”â€ˆRhode said. “His vision is to unite all of the country’s Muslims behind his rule — in essence to re-establish his own version of the Ottoman Empire.”
In Rhode’s view, uniting Turkey’s diverse ethnic factions, in some form of alliance with the Sunnis in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, ultimately will prove too difficult.
“Erdogan is juggling a lot right now, and needs to demonstrate that he is powerful,” said Rhode. “He needs ammunition to prove how strong he is. This apology from Israel helps him to do that.”
According to Rhode, it is extremely important that Israel now take efforts to appear strong in the wake of the apology.
“It is essential that Israel will remind its enemies who is boss,” said Rhode.
Newly appointed Israeli Defense Minster Moshe Ya’alon has already reduced the Mediterranean fishing boundaries of the Gaza Strip from six miles to three in the wake of rocket fire on the Israeli town of Sderot. He similarly ordered a crushing retaliatory strike on a Syrian missile-launching site that fired into Israel.
Ya’alon said that he supports Israel’s apology to Turkey.
America considers both Israel and Turkey to be among its closest allies in the Middle East. Obama is reported to have an especially close relationship with Erdogan, while having an often-tense relationship with Netanyahu.
While Erdogan is said to have accepted Israel’s apology on behalf of Turkey’s citizens, he may already be backtracking in an attempt to further solidify his position in the Muslim world. Less than 48 hours after the apology, Erdogan stated that a return to normalized diplomatic relations is contingent upon Israel fulfilling its commitments in the deal.
One of the major questions, according to Rhode, is “whether both sides consider this apology to be real, or whether this is merely window dressing.”