Perhaps the primary cause behind the rapid deterioration of Israeli-Turkish relations before Iran became central to their rift is Turkey's disappointment over the failure of Israel's former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to conclude an Israeli-Syrian peace. Turkey felt betrayed by Olmert, who failed to deliver the peace agreement with Syria which was painstakingly mediated by Ankara. Prime Minister Erdogan, who invested heavy political capital to mediate between Damascus and Jerusalem, was expecting to witness the signing of a peace treaty, but was instead confronted with the news that Israel invaded Gaza. From Turkey's perspective, an Israeli-Syrian peace could have fundamentally changed the geopolitical conditions throughout the Middle East and led to the resolution of other conflicts while fostering long-term regional stability. In essence, it was an historic opportunity that was squandered by Israel.
As a rising power, there was nothing more pronounced for Turkey to undertake than mediating peace between Israel and Syria, which has eluded the United States for decades. The opportunity presented itself in early October 2007 when Syria indicated through a back channel that it was ready, willing and able to forge a permanent peace treaty with Israel and that Damascus was prepared to make significant concessions to allay Israel's security and water concerns. It is critically important to note that Syria's expressed desire to enter into peace negotiations came only three weeks following Israel's bombing of a suspected Syrian nuclear plant. Syria was particularly interested in forging a peace agreement with Israel at that particular juncture prompted by its growing isolation, its economic hardship and especially the realization that however important its bilateral relations with Iran, it has its own liability as well as its limitations, especially in the long run. The question for Syria at the time was whether Turkey or Spain will be a more suitable mediator, as Damascus insisted that while it was ready to make peace with Israel, it wanted to negotiate through a third party. Damascus convincingly argued that it would be willing to move to direct negotiations once the parameters for an agreement were established, as long as Israel accepted the principle that any peace accord would be based on the exchange of territory for peace and that the 1967 June 4th ceasefire lines provided the baseline. Damascus' genuine desire to reach a peace agreement with Israel was subsequently demonstrated throughout the negotiations with Turkey's mediation.
Turkey's proximity, its improved relations with Syria and its excellent ties with Israel at the time quickly ruled out Spain as a potential mediator. Within a few weeks the three countries agreed on the modalities of the negotiations which commenced in earnest in the beginning of 2008. Although the details of the negotiations between Israel and Syria with Turkish mediation remained confidential, it became public knowledge that the Negotiations were taking place. Over a period of more than a year, the Turkish government invested substantial time and political capital to significantly advance the process. Based on very reliable accounts, by December 2008 Israel and Syria were able to resolve nearly 95 percent of their differences. Syria was able to satisfy Israel's stringent security requirements, which included the demilitarization of the Golan Heights, the stationing of peace keeping forces on Syrian territory, and a monitoring system to prevent any violation of the Accord. In addition, both sides agreed to a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces to insure orderly transition and time to resettle all settlers. Furthermore, Syria agreed to an equitable distribution of water, developing a joint park and providing special permits to the settlers to visit the Golan. Interestingly, Syria was also ready to consider the development of a free trade zone on the Golan open to all the states in the area, a project that would have transformed the relationships between Israel and all of its neighbors.
The occasion was celebrated between the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart Olmert with a dinner in Ankara that lasted five hours. Mr. Olmert was expected to confirm the near agreement with his Turkish counterpart within a few days following his consultation with his government immediately upon his return to Israel. Instead, to the utter surprise and dismay of the Turkish government, five days after Olmert returned to Jerusalem, Israel began a massive incursion into Gaza. Ankara felt betrayed by the Israeli action and deceived by Olmert's failure to inform the Turkish Prime Minister of Israel's pending operation of which he, as the Prime Minister, was obviously fully aware of and could have disclosed to his Turkish counterpart while he was still in Ankara. For Mr. Erdogan, the problem was compounded not only because he did not hear from Olmert the message of peace which he eagerly anticipated, but a 'declaration' of war with all of its potential regional consequences.
It is hard to describe the depth of the Turks' disappointment, not only because they were left in the dark, but because a major breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli peace process of historical magnitude was snatched away. On the rise as a regional power, for Turkey to successfully mediating a peace agreement between Israel and Syria after sixty years of conflict would have placed Turkey at the front and center of international prominence, especially because an Israeli-Syrian peace would have had so many other regional and even international implications. From the Turkish perspective, it would have changed the region's political dynamic and paved the way to peace between Israel and Lebanon and Israel and the Palestinians, and might have also changed the nature of hostile relations between Israel and Iran, thereby averting a potential violent conflict between the two nations which Ankara profoundly fears. As the Turks see it, Israel has acted as if it is accountable to no one and independent of everyone. Turkey feels it has major stake in any conflict in the Middle East and it is loath to merely accept Israeli de-facto policies that run contrary to Turkish national interests. As several Turkish high officials lamented, the strategic alliance with Israel is meaningful only when there is full and open cooperation between the parties on any issue that may impact either country's national strategic interests. But when one side or the other acts as if the alliance is only one sided to be exploited then it becomes at best meaningless but often harmful because of the inherit strategic interdependency and cooperation between the parties.
Contrary to the view that the Syrian authorities only talk about peace but are not interested in forging one because keeping the tension with Israel allows Bashar al-Assad, Syria's President to keep his grip on power, from everything we know Syria is still ready and able to strike a peace agreement with Israel -- not because it is weak and despondent, but because Damascus understand that its ultimate well-fare and well-being depend on improved relations with the West, especially the United States, which is and remains the ultimate power-arbiter in the Middle East. Moreover, continued tension with Israel has no strategic value and it could be utilized tactically and even then only up to a point which may now have run its course as Israel is becoming militarily stronger and more prosperous economically. Furthermore, Damascus understands the precariousness of its position in connection with Iran not only because of Tehran's growing international isolation -- resulting from its nuclear program -- but also because of the inherent inconsistency with Damascus' determination to remain the dominant arbiter over the fate of Lebanon.
Notwithstanding Israel's skepticism about Syria and especially Damascus' close ties with Iran, it appears that Israel's obsession with Iran obscured many other options, especially striking a peace agreement with Syria. The Netanyahu government today appears to be even farther away from any of its predecessors from considering a negotiated agreement with Syria that would of necessity require the return of the Golan. It is true that considering Israel's military prowess, Syria will not be able to regain the Golan by force in the foreseeable future. But this does not suggest that continued Israeli entrenchment on the Golan will overtime create an irreversible situation that would compel Syria to simply give up its claim over its territory. Although it is also true that relocating the settlers will require billions of dollars and it would be heart-breaking for many Israelis, the passage of time will make it only much more expensive and far more traumatic for the Israelis. Nobody should buy into the argument that there will be tremendous resistance by the settlers. The vast majority will relocate peacefully given the same quality of life and job opportunity. Any Israeli government that does not see far enough into the future and take the necessary measures to prevent inevitable catastrophic developments, even if the public is not alarmed by the status quo, that government will have to answer the judgment of time which will be harsh and unforgiving.
Due to the continuing Turkish-Israeli rift that was deepened by the flotilla incident, the time may not be auspicious for Turkey to resume its mediating role, but Ankara still is best positioned to mediate between Syria and Israel -- provided there is a government in Israel that can see the light. A government that is not blinded and self-absorbed, one that allows itself, time and again, to miss opportunities in the name of national security -- when in fact, by its own shortsightedness is jeopardizing Israel's long-term national security concerns.
A version of this article was published originally in the Jerusalem Post on December 31, 2010 and can be accessed here: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=201545