Turkish-Israeli Civil Society Forum
In October, the Turkish-Israeli Civil Society Forum organized a panel discussion with the support Friedrich-Naumann Foundation Turkey Office and Israeli Consulate in Istanbul, titled as “How can Media, Business and Civil Society Contribute to Turkish-Israeli Relations in Challenging Times?” in Istanbul. The event was opened by Dr. Hans-Georg Fleck, Head of the FNF Turkey Office. Dr. Fleck's welcoming speech was followed by Ms. Shira Ben Tzion, the Acting Consul General of Israel and Mr. Arik Segal from the Founder of Conntix. While both stressed the need to focus on relations between Turkish and Israeli civil society when the diplomatic and political ties are tense, Mr. Segal emphasized the role of social networks in creating and promoting interactions between the two countries.
The panel discussion, moderated by Barçın Yinanç, columnist at the Hürriyet Daily News and Daily Sabah, brought together Hasan Akçakayaoğlu, CEO of Bank Pozitif, Baybars Örsek, Founder of Doğruluk Payı, Dr. Nimrod Goren, Founder and Director of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (MITVIM), Niv Shtendel, Journalist at the Israeli MAKO and Dr. Salih Bıçakçı, Professor at Kadir Has University.
Mrs. Yinanç first gave the floor to Mr. Akçakayaoğlu who, as director of an investment bank based in Israel, took the opportunity to recall the good Turkish-Israeli relations maintained around 2005 when Abdullah Gül was Minister of Foreign Affairs. Although the bank faced problems with Turkish bureaucracy, the political support on the part of Turkish authorities enabled the bank to mobilize $1.5 billion in funding. The 2010 Gaza flotilla raid (also called Mavi Marmara event) strained Turkish-Israeli relations. Turkey, which considers the blockade illegal, had decided to refer the case to the International Court of Justice. However, according to Mr. Akçakayaoğlu support from both sides for the further political and economic ties were maintained after the event.
As the founder of the Turkish fact-checking website Doğruluk Payı, Mr. Örsek noted that Turkey and Israel are facing negative trends regarding democracy and transparency. He stressed that civil society, rather than the secret services, has an important role to play in the bolstering bilateral relations between the two countries. For him, Turkish NGOs have a third-party role to play in connecting Israeli society with countries such as Egypt and Lebanon.
As Head of the Mitvim Institute, Dr. Goren highlighted the importance of Israel-Turkey relations and the importance of acting towards their improvement, specifically towards a renewed exchange of ambassadors. He highlighted how Israel-Turkey relations have shown resilience throughout the decades, and how crises have been overcome. Dr. Goren stressed the possible contribution of civil society organizations, and think tanks in particular, to improving Israel-Turkey relations, and to advance shared interests and goals. He noted that the current crisis between the countries leads many in Israel to doubt whether an improvement of ties is at all possible and whether efforts should even be made towards that goal. The recent Mitvim poll shows that only center-left and left-wing voters in Israel support efforts to restore ties. In order to increase public support in this, there is need to show the vast potential that lies in these relations, the concrete benefits that better relations can bring to both sides, and the fact that Israel-Turkey relations should not be judged only be the actions of the heads of state. Dr. Goren concluded that third-party mediation can help the two countries improve ties, and that progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a necessary condition for a significant improvement of Israel-Turkey relations.
In the Middle East, there is the frequent statement that politics is omnipresent, including when you buy your products from the supermarket and examine their provenance. As a journalist reflecting the views of citizens in Israel, Mr. Shtendel announced that most Israelis do not care if their pickles are coming from Turkey or not. He also testified to the three reactions he received when he announced that he was going to Istanbul for a conference. According to him, a minority but a significant part was concerned about his departure to Turkey, which is known to be under the influence of strong anti-Semitic political Islam. Most of the reactions had expressed their curiosity and even certain envy for him visiting the millennial city. The last part of the reactions did not care. Those who have a hostile stance towards Turkey have never been in the country and also consumed a lot of Israeli nationalist media. In Mr. Shtendel’s view, the media has a central role to play in reflecting reality but also in designing a reality and shape the public opinion.
The floor was then given to Dr. Salih Bıçakçı who presented results of a multi-year opinion poll published in 2018 by the Kadir Has University. The general conclusion of the poll is that the society in Turkey is characterized by a strong anti-Israeli resentment, with 24.2% of the surveyed people declaring that the most crucial issue of Turkish Foreign Policy recently is its relations with Israel. For 54.4% of those surveyed, Israel is the country that poses a threat to Turkey. Also, the opinion poll shows a negative trend in the way people in Turkey look at Israel: in 2016, 41.6% of the surveyed supported the normalization of relations between Turkey and Israel and in 2018 only 26.7% are supporting it. Overall, Dr. Bıçakçı described Turkish political Islam as having a robust anti-Semitic component and highlighted the widening gap between Turkish and Israeli civil societies, with the two countries moving in a different direction.
After the discussion, participants had an opportunity to ask their questions to the panelists. Then, the core member group of TICSF came together to discuss the future event of the network with a roundtable session. The suggestions for new cooperation models were analyzed, and the following areas were covered: The situation of women in both societies, minority groups in Israel and Turkey, Turkish-Israeli cooperation on art, agriculture, entrepreneurship, education, environment, energy, science, technology, and student exchange programs.