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Rocky Israel-Turkey ties hit new low, but full-blown crisis could be prevented

JERUSALEM, May 17 (Xinhua) — The Israel-Turkey relations plunged to a new low this week over the recent killing of Palestinian protesters by Israel, but analysts still hold that a full-blown crisis could be prevented.

After Israeli forces killed dozens of Palestinians near the Israeli border with Gaza Strip earlier the week, the tensions between Turkey and Israel started to rise.

Turkey expelled Israeli ambassador in Ankara and Israel responded by doing the same to a senior Turkish diplomat.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a vocal critic of Israeli policies, recalled his ambassadors in Israel and the United States in protest against Washington’s controversial move to open the U.S. embassy in the disputed city of Jerusalem on Monday.

In fact, the past decade has witnessed a rockier relationship between the two countries than almost anytime in history.

The souring of the bilateral relations began in 2010, when a Turkish-led flotilla sent to break Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip ended in a clash with Israeli forces, leading to the death of 10 Turkish citizens.

In 2016, Turkey restored its ties with Israel, which paid 20 million U.S. dollars in compensation for the Turkish deaths.

The current crisis, which comes after several verbal exchanges between the two sides, is “testament to how fragile” this economically motivated reconciliation is, said Gallia Lindenstrauss, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at the Tel Aviv University.

According to statistics published by Israel’s Ministry of Economy, trade between the two countries has declined in the years since the rapprochement in 2016, with exports from Israel to Turkey falling significantly.

The reasons behind the decline, however, are believed to be largely financial, not political, as the price of severing the ties is high for both due to the bilateral trade of over 4 billion U.S. dollars.

“Both economies and private sectors are mature enough to distinguish between the economic relations and the political relations,” said Dani Catarivas, director general of International Affairs at the Manufacturers’ Association of Israel.

“Trade continued throughout the years, even when there was lack of political harmony,” Catarivas told Xinhua.

Erdogan has acted as a champion for the Palestinian cause, while Israel, the top U.S. ally in the Middle East, controls almost all traffic into the Palestinian territories and can severely hamper Turkish efforts in the region.

This time around, the disagreement between the two countries is also fuelled by a social media battle.

After Erdogan denounced the Israeli military actions in Gaza earlier in the week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted a harsh response describing the Turkish president as a “man whose hands are drenched in the blood of countless Kurdish civilians in Turkey and Syria.”

Erdogan is “the last one who can preach to us about military ethics,” Netanyahu said.

“Once the disagreement reaches the public and media spheres, it is more difficult because it inflames the public and influences the discourse,” said Nimrod Goren, head of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

In addition, the timing for Erdogan’s harsh comments on Israel is not coincidental as it is only a month away from Turkish general elections.

The images of Eitan Na’eh, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, was given a full body search at the airport before he was expelled home, may give dividends for the Turkish leader at the polls in late June.

While envoys were mutually sent home, the ties between Turkey and Israel are not formally severed or downgraded.

“It was clear that Turkey would react harshly after the U.S. embassy move,” said Lindenstrauss at a press briefing. “But the fact that Turkey this time didn’t do this formally (downgrading relations), in a sense opened up a space for keeping diplomatic relations alive.”

The combination of the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem with the violence in Gaza has, however, pushed the strained relations to the brink.

According to Lindenstrauss, Gaza and Jerusalem are two important “pillars” for Erdogan who has repeatedly promised to guard the holy city, just as he said on Wednesday that he would not allow Jerusalem “to be stolen from Israel.”

It will become clear soon whether the current crisis between the two countries will evolve into a full-blown crisis or remain a limited diplomatic spat.

“This crisis needs to be contained,” said Goren. “It needs to be done through quiet, efficient and professional diplomacy.”

Diplomacy is currently absent, but interests may triumph in the end, as the Israel-Turkey relations, which have been in place since 1945, are not to be taken for granted, he said.

“This relationship should not be abandoned. Despite all the difficulties, they have borne military, political, financial and civil fruits,” the Israeli expert said.

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