Disaster diplomacy in the Middle East?

Over the weekend, Israeli authorities finally contained the wildfire that devastated parts of northern Israel, near Haifa. The fire, which killed 42 people, including Israel’s highest-ranking policewoman, is being called the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. Today, a 14-year old boy admitted to throwing a piece of coal from a hookah pipe into ...

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Getty Images
Getty Images

Over the weekend, Israeli authorities finally contained the wildfire that devastated parts of northern Israel, near Haifa. The fire, which killed 42 people, including Israel's highest-ranking policewoman, is being called the worst natural disaster in the country's history. Today, a 14-year old boy admitted to throwing a piece of coal from a hookah pipe into the forest, starting the blaze.

Israel prides itself on its self-reliance and is usually a provider of rescue teams and medical personnel during other countries' natural disasters. The government was reportedly ill-equipped to handle a blaze of this magnitude, and had to take the unprecedented step of asking for help from abroad. Noting that both the United States and Russia have asked for international help in fighting major wildfires, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "We also did not hesitate, nor were we ashamed in requesting such assistance." (Netanyahu also reportedly looked to President George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina as an example of how not to respond to a natural disaster.)

Over the weekend, Israeli authorities finally contained the wildfire that devastated parts of northern Israel, near Haifa. The fire, which killed 42 people, including Israel’s highest-ranking policewoman, is being called the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. Today, a 14-year old boy admitted to throwing a piece of coal from a hookah pipe into the forest, starting the blaze.

Israel prides itself on its self-reliance and is usually a provider of rescue teams and medical personnel during other countries’ natural disasters. The government was reportedly ill-equipped to handle a blaze of this magnitude, and had to take the unprecedented step of asking for help from abroad. Noting that both the United States and Russia have asked for international help in fighting major wildfires, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "We also did not hesitate, nor were we ashamed in requesting such assistance." (Netanyahu also reportedly looked to President George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina as an example of how not to respond to a natural disaster.)

What’s most surprising is the not the help Israel received from the United States, European Union, and Russia, but that from Turkey and the Palestinian Authority. Relations between Turkey and Israel have been strained since May’s deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, killing eight Turks and a Turkish-American. Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the first time since the raid to thank him for sending two airplanes to help battle the blaze. "We very much appreciate this mobilization and I am certain that it will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries, Turkey and Israel," Netanyahu said in a statement released to the press after the call.

Netanyahu also spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday for the first time since direct talks broke down in September. Abbas volunteered to send three fire trucks to the area.

Will disaster lead to diplomacy? Turkey has already engaged in "hurricane diplomacy" with Greece after a series of earthquakes devastated both countries in 1999. Greece and Turkey had maintained fraught and conflict-ridden relations for centuries. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, each sent rescue teams to help the other and newspapers were full of stories about Turkish citizens offering to donate kidneys to Greek victims (and vice versa).

Turkey doesn’t seem as enthusiastic about improved relations this time. Erdogan said he still expects an apology and compensation from Israel for the flotilla deaths, noting that the aid for the fire was purely humanitarian.

"We would never stand by when people are being killed and nature is being destroyed anywhere in the world," Erdogan told CNNTurk. "No one should try to interpret this any differently." In a dig at Netanyahu, who said Turkey’s gesture could help improve Turkish-Israeli ties, he continued:

"Now some are coming out and saying, ‘Let’s begin a new phase.’ Before that, our demands must be met … Our nine brothers martyred on the Mavi Marmara [the vessel raided by Israeli commandos] must be accounted for. First an apology must be made and compensation must be paid."

Suzanne Merkelson is an editorial assistant at Foreign Policy.

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