It is a headline writer’s dream: “Ambassador expelled”; “Trade with Israel suspended”; “Prime Minister to visit Gaza”; “Turkish navy to patrol eastern Mediterranean”. The reality is much less Hollywood.
The Israeli ambassador to Turkey was not in the country anyway, conveniently and with “foresight” avoiding the embarrassment of television cameras capturing him skulking away. The trade suspension was rapidly qualified as government-to-government — a fraction of the $3 billion plus annual total. The Turkish navy is unlikely to provide the Israelis with another opportunity to demonstrate their military prowess with a 1967 Liberty-style attack. And Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Gaza trip was always politically unrealistic, however much he personally may have wanted to go.
More significant than any of this is that private sector commercial relations between the two countries is growing, not declining. Never let rhetoric interfere with the sacred duty of making money. Even as Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan was solemnly declaring that trade ties with Israel were being downgraded to second secretary level, he was truthfully admitting that “there has not been much change in bilateral trade relations yet”. In short, if you want to know what is really going on in this world, follow the money. Verbal and political warfare between the two countries began with Erdogan’s walkout at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos and came to a head following the Israeli slaughter in May 2010 of eight Turks and an American of Turkish origin aboard an aid flotilla. Now check out the cash flow since then.
In the first half of this year, Israeli exports to Turkey shot up by 39 percent to $950 million. Trade in the opposite direction rose by 16 percent, to just more than $1 billion, and by the end of the year the two-way volume is expected to surpass $4 billion. Of course, there are sound reasons — on both sides — for wanting to maintain the exchanges.
Turkey has been suffering from the economic malaise in Europe, the main market for its exports, and suffered financial body blows from the uprisings in Libya and Syria. For its part, Israel was hurt by economic turmoil in the United States, its main customer.
Erdogan and Caglayan have both said Turkey’s quarrel is with the Israeli government, not individuals or businesses. Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu was exporting his own complementary statement. The political crisis “is not our choice”, he said. “We respect the Turkish people and their heritage.” Not to mention their money. And their cheap holiday resorts.
The number of Israeli visitors to Turkey fell through the floor last year, dropping by around two thirds to 109,600. Tourists are not made of the same stern stuff as business people, and some Israelis took delight in flaunting figures to the northwest and pointing out how much they were hurting the Turkish tourist industry. That Turkey’s overall tourism numbers went up anyway, even given the missing Israelis, was not included in the gloating. Regardless, the Israelis are coming back. Perhaps encouraged by a favorable exchange rate as much as the facilities, the July and August figures rocketed from around 94,000 in 2010 to 166,000 this year, according to the Israeli Airports Authority. Tourism and trade operate on different dynamics of course. Tourist numbers can drop suddenly and build up again fairly quickly. Trade relations are established over a much longer period, and equally take a good while to wind down. Economic relations between Egypt and Israel had developed a rising momentum when Netanyahu became Israeli prime minister for the first time. It took just more than a year of his hardline policies before there were visible signs of decline.
In the longer term — and short of Middle East peace — Turkey is more important to Israel than the other way around. Erdogan’s relentless drive to enhance his country’s influence and strength took him to Egypt last month, where he forecast a rise in mutual trade to $10 billion over the next few years, as well as to Libya to restore the large and lucrative Turkish contracts that the revolution put in abeyance. Then there is always the US. Francisco Sanchez, the undersecretary of state for trade and commerce, said in Ankara last month the US aimed to triple trade with Turkey over the next five to six years. That would make it worth $45 billion, dwarfing the figure with Israel. And, after all, why deal with the monkey when you can trade with the organ grinder?
PETER GRIMSDITCH is Executive’s