The darkening situation in the Middle East has produced a silver lining. With Syria’s civil war intensifying and Iran showing no sign of slowing its nuclear program, Israel and Turkey have patched a nearly three-year-old rift. In a March 22 phone call stage-managed by U.S. President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the deaths of nine Turks in a 2010 Israeli raid on a ferry attempting to breach the sea blockade of the Gaza Strip. That should open the way for Israel and Turkey to begin sharing intelligence and strategies for managing the common threat they face from Syria — and to increase the pressure on Tehran.
Rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, two regional powers with stable democratic governments, has a compelling logic at a time when the Middle East is gripped by war and sectarian rivalry and Egypt and Iraq are consumed with internal turmoil. But the incipient makeup will require careful nurturing. Erdogan, who only a few weeks ago equated Zionism with "crimes against humanity," has been undiplomatically crowing about Netanyahu’s apology; more troubling, he has insisted that the deal requires Israel to lift its sea blockade of Gaza, even though the statements issued by the two governments do not say that. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, whose behind-the-scenes cajoling helped to produce the breakthrough, will need to keep working to ensure that the accord does not crumble.
Both governments, however, have powerful incentives to cooperate. As Netanyahu explained on his Facebook page, his decision to deliver an apology he had long refused was driven by the growing threat that Syria’s chemical weapons and other advanced arms may fall into the hands of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon or an al-Qaida offshoot in Syria. The two governments can now pool intelligence — and they will need to communicate in the event that one or the other is compelled to take action to prevent the transfer of dangerous weapons. Israel can also take satisfaction over the alarm the accord prompted in Iran, which will worry that one constraint on Israeli military action against its nuclear facilities has been eased.
Erdogan, for his part, aspires to return to the role of regional statesman that he occupied before the Arab revolutions, when he sought to broker deals among Israel, Syria and the Palestinian Hamas movement. "We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power," he boasted, while promising to visit Gaza next month.
That may be too much to expect: Netanyahu’s government is as unlikely to open negotiations with Hamas as it is to fully lift its Gaza blockade. Israel, for its part, has little hope that the strategic military cooperation it nurtured with Turkey before Erdogan came to power will be revived. Even modestly better relations with Turkey and Israel are nevertheless vital to U.S. interests in the Middle East — and to containing its growing disorder.