Barack Obama really is a magician. Just as he was about to leave Israel, he announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had spoken by telephone. Even more, Bibi apologized to Erdoğan for the deaths of Turkish citizens during the Mavi Marmara affair.
I did not see this coming, and I’d be surprised if anyone else did, either. The trip that everybody (including me) thought was about domestic American politics, Iran, resetting the relationship with Bibi, giving comfort to Israelis, and demonstrating support for the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank was also, it turns out, about Obama’s broader regional diplomacy.
Here are my initial thoughts about the phone call and its aftermath:
1. Turkey gained much without compromising anything. Erdoğan got the biggest thing he had been demanding since the attacks, which was an Israeli apology. His other demands—compensation and an end to the siege of Gaza—are either easily met (compensation) or non-starters (ending the siege), so this was the most important. Starting to repair relations with Israel also removes major irritants that affected Turkey’s relations with the United States, some European countries, and NATO, disrupting processes and regional security plans. Turkey easily came out on top here.
In return, Erdoğan said Ankara would drop charges against Israeli military for their role in the killings. But this was a very minor concession: it would never have resulted in actual prosecution or sentencing. If Turkey had pursued it, it might have constrained the ability of some officers to travel around the world, but even then it would be more irksome than anything else.
2. It’s hard to avoid noticing that the apology was only realized with Avigdor Lieberman gone from the Foreign Ministry. Blustering and belligerent, Lieberman was never the right choice for the position. If Bibi’s apology can warm his relationship with Obama, reset the relationship with Turkey, and lead to the inclusion rather than exclusion of Israel in global and regional forums, conferences, and exercises, then it’s hard to argue bringing Lieberman back is a good thing. In fact, the obvious conclusion is the opposite one: Israel can accomplish much with Foreign Minister who’s pragmatic and has a broader sense of Israel’s position in the world.
3. I’d like to know how Obama persuaded Bibi to call. Did Obama promise extra aid to Israel? Was this a quid pro quo, and if so, for what?
4. It remains to be seen what happens next between Israel and Turkey, of course. I don’t think we’ll see a return to the mid-1990s levels of cooperation and warmth. But this is a good start as both countries seek to find their place in a changing Middle East.