Ever since May 2010, when Israeli troops raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla and killed eight Turkish civilians aboard, relations between Israel and Turkey have been bad. That tension, between two powerful Middle East states and allies of the United States, has been a problem that President Obama has been trying to solve for over two years now.
Friday, on the last day of Obama's trip to Israel, Netanyahu finally called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to apologize, as Obama has urged since 2010. The three-way call ended with a bit of goodwill and some policy changes: Israeli payment to the families of the victims, an easing of the Israeli embargo on Gaza (which the flotilla had sought to break), the "cancellation" of Turkey's "legal steps" against the Israeli military and, most importantly, the restoration of full diplomatic relations. It's a big deal.
The greatest significance, though, may be symbolic, as a precursor to – fingers crossed – a renewed peace process between Israel and the Palestinian territories. An optimistic take on this incident might note that Netanyahu has been resisting U.S. pressure to make up for years, so the fact that he's now seen this through perhaps signals a greater willingness on his part to listen to other U.S. advice, for example on the Israel-Palestine peace process. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, may have hinted as much when she tweeted that the phone call "is a positive step that we hope leads to lasting cooperation on many important issues."
If nothing else, maybe this episode could serve as a sort of practice run and trust-building exercise. Obama proves to the world that he is uniquely positioned to deliver the Israelis, and he proves to the Israelis that he can deliver the other side. Netanyahu, ideally, comes out of the deal looking stronger both within Israeli politics and internationally – but so does Obama.
Of course, there is reason to worry about how difficult it could be to translate Friday's diplomatic success in overcoming the Israel-Turkey tension into momentum for the Israel-Palestine peace process, and not just because the latter is much deeper and more daunting. As Michael Koplow, an analyst of Israeli and Turkish politics, pointed out, the Israeli pro-settlers right does not have much reason to stand in the way of detente with Turkey. But their increasingly powerful political coalition is adamantly opposed to any two-state peace deal, not to mention anything that curbs settlement growth, which is currently a Palestinian pre-condition to talks.
All of which is to say that just beginning peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, much less bringing them to a fruitful conclusion, is still just as terrifyingly difficult as it was a week ago. Friday's phone call didn't make the underlying issues, particularly settlements, any easier to solve. But it is a good sign for the American and Israeli diplomacy necessary to get anywhere. And that's something.