The matzo meter: Signs Israel and Turkey are getting friendlier

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Elif Batuman reports in the New Yorker this week on Istanbul’s “phantom matzo factory” that operated in the city’s Galata neighborhood for thirty years, before being closed in 2007 and turned into an arts space:

A lot of people don’t know that, for nearly thirty years, Istanbul had its own working matzo factory, or that Istanbul still has its own non-working matzo factory. Known in Turkish as the “doughless oven,” located in Galata, on the northern bank of the Golden Horn, it has been given over to the arts. …

The machine had stopped running in 2007, after visiting rabbis found that some batches of matzo didn’t meet the regulations to be kosher. Maintaining the aging Turkish apparatus, with its frequent need of repairs and replacement parts, turned out to be more costly than importing matzo from Israel ….It might seem ironic to mass-produce and export a kind of bread that derives its importance from the fact that it was made on the run. Nonetheless, Israel now supplies all of Turkey’s matzo.

In Istanbul last month to cover the international Iran nuclear talks, I snapped the photo above of some of those Israeli matzohs for sale at a grocery store in Istanbul’s Nistantisi neighborhood.

While Israel and Turkey have been at odds in recent years in particular since the 2010 Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla violence, there are several recent signs that relations between the two countries are quietly improving. Israel this week downgraded its March warning to citizens about travel to Turkey to its lowest level–that of “continuing potential threat.”

Among other signs: Turkish authorities reportedly halted some “flytilla” activists at Turkish airports last month. Meantime, flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul were expanded to three a day last month, and Turkish budget airlines Pegasus reportedly added Tel Aviv to its routes. And commercial trade between the two nations rose to almost $4 billion in 2011–notably, with more of it consisting of consumer goods–software, foodstuffs, etc., rather than high-price-tag defense items.

Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States Namik Tan–who previously served as Ankara’s envoy to Israel–attended Israel’s Independence Day celebrations in Washington this week, where his presence was warmly welcomed by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.

“We very pleased to see [Turkish Amb ] @NamikTan here tonight,” Amb. Oren told Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir, he noted on twitter, in a post retweeted by the Israeli envoy. “We missed him a lot.”

The signs of warming ties are at odds, however, with the rhetoric from higher levels of officialdom, particularly in Ankara. Turkish media reported last month that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had claimed credit for nixing Israel’s attendance at the NATO summit in Chicago in May. American diplomats, for their part, say Israel–which is not a member of NATO but of a sub-body called the Mediterranean Alliance–was not formally scheduled to attend the Chicago summit.

Davutoglu has insisted that Turkish-Israeli ties cannot be fully normalized until Israel issue an apology for the killing of 9 Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara. Expectations last summer had been that a resolution to the matter was forthcoming–but at the last minute Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly balked at issuing the apology language that had been worked out.

“There seems to be a divide between the top and ground level,” Michael Koplow, a specialist on the region who writes the blog Ottomans and Zionists, told me Thursday. “There seems to be a growing recognition that this isn’t helping anybody.”

The timing of Israel’s announcement this week that it was lowering the travel warning to Turkey to the lowest level struck Koplow as particularly notable. But despite the signs, anecdotal and statistical, of expanded travel and trade, and many wider similarities between the two countries and their leaders–“nationalists with a tendency to make intemperate remarks,” the prospects for more official rapprochement in the near term don’t seem great, he said.

“The Israelis seem like they want to get past it,” Koplow said. “Davutoglu said they will never get past it without an apology.” With Israel now entering campaign season, however–new elections are scheduled for Sept. 4–the Israeli prime minister is not going to be issuing any such apology over the next few months, he predicted.

(Photo of Israeli matzohs for sale in a Sisli grocery store, April 15, 2012; Laura Rozen)

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