ANKARA (The Associated Press)—Trade between Israel and Turkey surged in the first half of this year as Israel lifted a warning on travel to Turkey and an Israeli volleyball team trained in the Turkish capital on Friday for a regional tournament.
Do these positive signals suggest the softening of a dispute that deepened after Israel’s deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla? Not necessarily.
Neither side has backed down in a standoff that has implications for Israel’s decades-old campaign to ease its political isolation, Turkey’s aim to become the predominant broker in a conflict-prone region, and more broadly, efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.
Yet the impasse has shifted from the inflamed rhetoric immediately after the May 31 raid on a Turkish ship that killed nine pro-Palestinian activists to a calmer period in which both sides are allowing time for a solution that would preserve their alliance, according to analysts.
“I would think that they’re trying to sort of play it down on both sides, from the brink of where it came to, and try to find a face-saving compromise,” said Gulnur Aybet, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Kent at Canterbury in Britain.
Israel was also preparing to release all six ships from the flotilla, including the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara, where the violence occurred.
“There was a decision to allow those ships to leave,” an Israeli government official said Friday on condition of anonymity because no official announcement had been made. He had no information on the timetable.
Right now, the gulf is stark: Turkey has said it wants an Israeli apology and compensation for the victims of the flotilla raid or an international investigation, and failing those, an end to diplomatic ties. Citing self-defense, Israel refused to apologize and launched an internal inquiry; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to testify next month.
In a sign of continuing exchanges, the women’s volleyball team from Israel arrived in Ankara, an inconsequential event in the sporting world and seemingly of no bearing on the political. But the presence of the team indicates that Turkey is willing to keep its doors open for Israeli nationals whose passports are not recognized by many countries in the Middle East.
“We know that the problem is only a political problem,” Israeli team spokesman Yaron Michaeli said in a telephone interview from Israel “The players try to concentrate on what they have to do.”
If the Israeli and Turkish teams win their matches on Saturday in the European Volleyball League, they face each other in the final round on Sunday. If they lose, they will play against each other for third place. Turkish volleyball officials have said security will be provided and that sports and politics should be kept separate.
In another positive step, Israel on Tuesday canceled a warning to its people to avoid traveling to Turkey, citing an end to street protests that swept some Turkish cities after the flotilla raid. The government said the decision was unrelated to politics and based strictly on an assessment of danger to Israelis, many of whom seek sun-and-sand vacations on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast in the summer.
Such gestures could contribute to a more cordial atmosphere between the two countries, even if Israeli tourists who have made other holiday plans don’t immediately flock back to Turkey.
Aybet, the lecturer, speculated that such “small things” indicate that Turkey and Israel are looking to avoid a costly rupture, though Turkey’s sharp demands will make it hard for its government to back down if it seeks a compromise.
If diplomatic ties end, Israel stands to lose what was traditionally its main Muslim ally, increasing its isolation in a region largely hostile to its presence. Turkey, in turn, would forfeit diplomatic stature by irreversibly choosing sides in the Mideast conflict.
In 2008, Turkey mediated between Israel and Syria, a role that won it international praise. The United States and Europe are pushing Israel and NATO member Turkey, key allies of the West, to reconcile.
Military business and exchanges between Israel and Turkey, a vital support for the Turkish military during the height of Kurdish rebel violence in the 1990s, are drying up. Other trade, however, is healthy so far this year despite political tension that accelerated after Turkish outrage over Palestinian casualties in the Gaza war in the winter of 2008 and 2009.
Turkish exports to Israel were nearly $1 billion in the first six months of 2010, a 40 percent increase over the same period in 2009, and Israeli exports to Turkey were up 21 percent to $645 million in the same period, according to the Israeli government. Products include machinery, rubber, plastics, leather, textiles and precious stones and metals.
For now, the crisis is in a lull. Turkish officials are also distracted by a major item on the domestic agenda: plans for a Sept. 12 referendum on reforms to Turkey’s constitution, a legacy of military-dominated rule.
In the meantime, both countries need to lower their expectations and take steps to repair the relationship, said Mehmet Yegin, a Middle East analyst for the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara.
“It is too early to speak of any warming in ties,” Yegin said. “There is no clear signal towards that.”