Israel and Turkey: It’s Hard to Fight with Your Hands in Each Other’s Pockets

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Turkish demonstrators shout anti-U.S. and anti-Israel slogans during the al-Quds day demonstration in Istanbul, August 26, 2011. (Photo: Osman Orsal / AP)

One of the pleasures of covering Florida politics in Washington used to be Sam Gibbons, D-Tampa, the only Democrat reliably elected to the House from the Gulf Coast, and a dedicated teller of war stories. Gibbons parachuted into Normandy with the 101st Airborne and what followed would inspire certain quality entertainments from Hollywood, including “A Bridge Too Far,” “Battle of the Bulge,” and Episode 2 of “Band of Brothers.”

What it inspired in Gibbons was the particular revulsion for war only a combat veteran can really know, and a determination to locate the levers that would avoid repeating the experience.  When he believed he found one, he made it the slogan of the Ways and Means subcommittee he chaired for years: “Countries that trade with each other don’t go to war with each other.”

Which bodes well for the future of Turkey and Israel. The erstwhile allies may be at each other throats now – with Israel’s prime minister refusing to apologize for the killing of nine civilians on the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara last year, and Turkey’s premier threatening to confront Israeli gunboats off the Gaza Strip – but they get along famously in the marketplace.

“If the trend continues we might be looking at approximately $4 billion this year, imports and exports,” says Joe Abraham, commercial attaché in the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. Ankara booted out Israel’s ambassador this month, and downgraded relations to the lowest level that actually keeps diplomats in the country. But those who remain say they are not only busy but welcome, at least in boardrooms and business lunches.

“I’ve been received very amicably,” says Abraham.

Small wonder, give how rapidly the weave of commercial ties has grown in the last decade, the very period that prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has dominated. Israeli leaders frequently refer to AKP, as the party is known in Turkey, as “Islamist,” a synonym for “enemy” in the Hebrew media. But Turks say that while they welcome a government that’s comfortable in its Muslim identity, they know this one first as an engine of prosperity.  And it appears that Israeli business people might, too.

“When I left Istanbul in 2000 we were at $700 million,” says Eli Shaked, who was Israel consul general in the massive city for four years.  That means trade between the emerging Muslim superpower and the Jewish state more than quintupled in a decade, even as the political leadership in both nations found reason to descend from polite disagreement to violent quarrel. Abraham, the commercial attaché, describes commerce between the two as “quite complementary.” Turkey is a manufacturing powerhouse, while Israel thrives in the technology sector glorified in Start-Up Nation. Meanwhile, no one near them, aside from Europe, makes much of anything except money from oil.

None of which means things can’t somehow fall apart. But beyond the web of overlapping interests and capillary level social interchange that made Sam Gibbons so confident in his axiom, Israel and Turkey are something else: Fellow democracies. And as even one of the most hawkish Israeli officials noted in the early days of the Arab Spring, democracies don’t go to war with one another.