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The agreement between Israel and Turkey announced today to restore normal relations after a six-year rift should be welcomed — albeit with some reservations.
These are two important states in a region being torn apart by war, civil strife and massive refugee flows. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The Middle East is in turmoil. My policy is to create islands of stability with our close neighbor. This agreement is good for both sides.”
The two nations had long enjoyed good relations but were bitterly divided in May 2010 when nine Turkish nationals were killed by IDF naval commandos as Israeli forces intercepted a flotilla sailing to Gaza to break the Israeli naval embargo.
Both countries now find themselves menaced by Syria’s civil war and its reverberations. They are also both keeping a wary eye on ISIS, which operates close to their borders.
Although it’s overly optimistic to believe a new flowering of relations is about to ensue, there is tremendous symbolic importance in Israel conducting normal relations, including trade, tourism, sporting and cultural exchanges, with a Muslim nation of 75 million people.
Then there is the benefit for the beleaguered Palestinians of Gaza from the agreement. Under the agreement, Israel will allow Turkey to build a hospital, power station and desalination plant in Gaza and to transfer unlimited humanitarian aid and equipment to Gaza as long as it goes through the Israeli port of Ashdod. Turkey dropped its demand that Israel lift its maritime blockade of Gaza as a condition of normalizing relations.
After the last Gaza War between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2014, which caused immense damage to infrastructure as well as tragic loss of life, the international community pledged $5.4 billion for reconstruction. For various complex reasons, very little has been done and the people of Gaza continue to suffer.
At a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in February 2016, head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi said, “The humanitarian situation in Gaza is deteriorating.” Halevi even warned that if there is no significant change, then Gaza will be unfit for human habitation by 2020, just as a United Nations report determined in September 2015.
Turkey is an immensely important nation in the Middle East. It hosts the world’s largest community of Syrians displaced by the ongoing conflict in their country – a number which may be as high a three million.
There are many good reasons to criticize the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, including its crackdown on journalists, political opponents and the country’s Kurdish minority. Freedom House, which monitors democracy around the world, classes Turkey as “partly free” and its press as “not free.”
The process Turkey has undergone under Erdoğan should stand as a warning to other states in the region and around the world of how an authoritarian leader can eat away at the institutions and fabrics of democracy and civil society in a nation.
Such considerations, however, should not prevent positive diplomatic developments such as this agreement. Israel (and the United States) has important and productive relationships with many countries that are undemocratic to different degrees. This agreement does inject stability into an unstable region and could benefit the inhabitants of Gaza. Those alone are sufficient reasons to welcome it.
Alan Elsner is Special Advisor to the President at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @alanelsner