Israeli-Turkish relations have seriously escalated in 2009, after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan harshly criticized Israeli military actions in Gaza and Israeli actions during the notorious flotilla incident. Though Turkey and Israel had excellent relations prior to the abovementioned, Israel didn’t agree to sit on the sidelines; the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Turkey was answered with the humiliation of the Turkish Ambassador to Israel. Years of excellent diplomatic and military relations ended and not only that- the Israelis decided to boycott Turkey and refused to tour the streets of Antalya again. Now, 5 years later, we can notice first signs for the return of Israelis to Turkey. However, the question remains: whether tourism will succeed in the place diplomacy failed? Is there a chance for reconciliation?
Searching for Clues: The History of Turkish-Israeli Relations
Israel was one of Turkey’s strongest allies only a decade ago. Relations between the two flourished during the 1990s, when a number of landmark agreements were signed. In 1996 the Turkish military signed an accord with the Israeli military and later that year, an agreement with the Israeli defense industry. In 2002, Turkey signed a contract worth 668$ million for the modernization of M-60 tanks with an Israeli company in reaction to a Greek contract with Germany for the purchase of 170 new tanks. Secular circles in Turkey affiliated with the Israelis: modern, western, being the non-Arab in the region and fellow victims of terror . Unfortunately, Turkish political authorities could not help venting their disapproval and condemnation when faced with Israeli acts; Israeli soldiers besieged Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in May 2002 and Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit accused Israel of committing genocide. These Turkish efforts to change the relations between the two states did not bear any fruits until 2009 .
Downhill from here: What Politics Did to Israeli Tourism in Turkey
The failure of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians at Camp David and the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000 created a fertile ground for Turks to speak out against Israel and criticize its policies towards the Palestinian population. The war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006 and the continuing occupation of Gaza changed the political climate in Turkey and provided an impetus for the rejection of Israeli-Turkish military agreements .
The year 2009 can be regarded as the tipping point; the AKP government headed by Erdogan took control of all initiatives. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Erdogan that there would not be an operation in Gaza; however, Israel launched operation Cast Lead. Erdogan felt betrayed and started to criticize Israel publicly, for example by relating to Israeli aggression against the Palestinians during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Perhaps the forum in Davos was not the correct arena to fight for a personal cause but this is a symbol of Erdogan’s regime. Israel decided to respond by humiliating the Turkish Ambassador Oguz Celikkol – he was seated in a lower chair in a meeting with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Turkey responded by refusing to meet Ehud Barak, Israeli Defense Minister and by canceling joint military exercises. However, what caused the final rift was Israel’s refusal to apologize for the flotilla raid in September 2011, which ended with the death of 9 activists. Turkish Chief of General Staff said: “All military activities have been suspended. There is no channel of communication between the Turkish and Israeli army to solve the crisis. This is not the matter of the military but that of politics” .
Israeli tourism to Turkey suffered a massive hit. Once the favorite country turned its back on Israel, the price came quickly. Israelis started a boycott against Turkey and refused to visit it again. Additionally, workers unions stopped organizing vacation deals to Turkey. Once the ideal vacation site for 500,000 Israelis each year, Turkey was now forbidden intentionally for Israelis. Five years later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with the help of US President Barack Obama .
Can Tourism Heal? Greek-Turkish Relations as an Indicator
Not only tourism contributes economically but it also has the power to improve individual well-being, foster cross-cultural understanding, facilitate learning, contribute to cultural protection and promote peace .
For the last 38 years, the main sources for negative relations between Greece and Turkey have been the island of Cyprus and the dogfight in the Aegean Sea. Despite numerous negotiations and mediation efforts to resolve the conflict, there hasn’t been much contact between the two communities . The two couldn’t agree upon a joint country or normal relations between two separate entities. Each side saw his own reflection, which made it hard to communicate without inhibitions.
However, in recent years, there has been a change of scenery as businessmen from both sides of the mattress combined efforts to change the facts. They have started promoting joint tourist packages to attract tourists from distant places such as China, Japan, India, South Korea and Brazil. Their efforts didn’t go unnoticed; the Greek embassy in Ankara organized a program to promote investment opportunities mainly in tourism, renewable energy sources, construction and food and beverages. In addition, an investment forum took place in Ankara February 24 this year, with particular emphasis on tourism .
The relationship between Israel and Turkey had its ups and downs over the last years. A prosperous tie was replaced by resentment and mistrust. Turks wished for an apology that Israelis were unwilling to deliver. Turks saw the acts of the Israeli military as brutal and senseless while Israelis refused to agree with world views. For many Israelis, the new Turkish perspective headed by the AKP lead government, was unexpected and offensive. Turkey was a heaven for them, and they liked revisiting their Levantine heaven; after all, no one else could offer a lavish but inexpensive vacation. Though 500,000 Israelis used to visit Turkey each year before 2009, Israel is considered to have fragmented boundaries between the army and politics. While there is separation between the army and society, the army still has influence over the civil and political sphere. The Israeli military is deemed sacred in the eyes of the public opinion and the one who tries to harm will suffer the consequences, even if it would mean for them to find a new place to spend the summer. Turkey was not dramatically harmed by this decision but both people lost an important part of their lives: a genuine connection between people of different religions without judgment. In the Middle East- this is not obvious.
Turkish-Greek improvement in relations through tourism can set an example for the Israeli-Turkish struggle. Now that Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized, Israelis feel better about the possibility of returning to Turkey. The agreement signed this month between Israeli and Turkish Airports Authorities allows the return of Israeli flights to Turkey after years of pause. One can look at the touristic offers on Israeli websites and understand something has changed – Turkey is back on the map. Turkish chief of General staff was wrong: This is not a matter of politics but of people.
Sivan Kriboshe is a graduate student in the program for Political Communication in Bar-Ilan University, Israel.
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