Israeli and Turkish representatives reportedly met privately here this week to hammer out an agreement — perhaps as early as this week — that would restore their countries’ historic alliance, which was shattered in the winter of 2009 over Turkey’s criticism of Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip.
Although Israel has long sought a reconciliation with its former best friend in the Muslim world, Turkish officials have insisted that Israel first issue a formal apology for the deaths on May 31, 2010, of nine activists — eight of whom were Turkish nationals and the other a U.S. national of Turkish origin. They were killed by Israeli troops during a raid on their boat, the Mavi Marmara, which was part of a six-ship flotilla trying to run Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
A United Nations report into the deaths on the Mavi Marmara was to be released late this week, and a source with knowledge of the reconciliation talks said the Israeli and Turkish emissaries met here “so they can work with the UN people” to tone down the report should an accord be reached. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon was said to be meeting with Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu.
The Israeli media said a draft of the UN report found the Israeli blockade legal but faulted Israeli troops for using undue force when they stormed the boat.
Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, said he understands that both sides would like to put the issue of the raid behind them once the accord is signed.
“Although the report may be critical of Israel, it is said to justify the blockade and so be balanced, and no one now wants to make a big issue out of it,” he said, adding that the accord “most likely is going to be signed this week.”
“It behooves each side to downplay the findings … in order to keep whatever its findings may be from serving to re-inflame the nationalist rhetoric that has served to divide the two sides,” Ben-Meir wrote in an opinion column. “Regardless of who is blamed, a re-focus on the incident will only detract rather than advance the interests of both nations.”
Both countries are seen as the only anchors of stability in an increasingly turbulent Middle East. And it is that unrest that appears to be a major catalyst in getting them to resolve their differences. Of particular concern for Turkey is its alliance with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, which has strengthened in recent years. But with Assad’s regime facing almost daily street protests that have resulted in Syrian troops reportedly firing on their own people and killing more than 1,000, his future is increasingly shaky.
If his regime collapses, the impact on Turkey is expected to be significant. The Turkish Red Crescent Society estimated this week that 17,000 Syrians were awaiting entry into Turkey, on top of the more than 10,000 Syrian refugees already in government-sponsored camps near the frontier.
“Turkey today is in need of a stabilizing force, which Israel has to offer,” noted Ben-Meir.
But he pointed out that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan’s recent re-election now gives him the political muscle to “re-establish ties with Israel from a position of even greater strength than before, and in doing so, stake Turkey’s claim to regional leadership. … Erdogan feels more empowered and he does not have to apologize or explain his actions given the wide mandate he received.”
The United States is also said to be pressing both sides to sign an accord in advance of the UN report’s release. The Israeli media quoted one Israeli government source in Jerusalem as saying that if there is no accord and the UN report is released, bilateral talks are likely to remain frozen for the foreseeable future and then “everybody loses.”
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet was quoted Monday as saying: “Diplomats are working like linguists to find a word that will sound like an apology in Turkish, but won’t sound like an apology in Hebrew.”
But one source familiar with the discussions said he understood the two sides would likely agree to an accord in which Israel issues a qualified apology for the “inadvertent” deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara without accepting direct blame.
Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Dan Meridor said Tuesday that he hoped Israel and Turkey would “find a way to resume their relationship, putting it back the way it was before the impolite attack on [Israeli President Shimon] Peres by [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan, and then the flotilla incident.”
He was referring to a televised debate Peres and Erdogan had in January 2009 at the World Economic Forum in Davos during which Peres said Turkey would have reacted as Israel did had Istanbul been subjected to the same protracted rocket attacks from Gaza as Israel’s cities had endured. When told by the moderator that he had only one minute to respond, Erdogan replied: “I find it very sad that people applaud what you said. There have been many people killed. And I think it is very wrong and it is not humanitarian.”
Moments later, Erdogan walked out of the debate and left the conference.
In discussing Israel’s interest in restoring ties with Turkey, Meridor told a conference call organized by the Israel Policy Forum that Turkey is “an important country, a strong and advanced country. … Israel and Turkey had good relations and we have a common interest in maintaining it. We are the two stable islands in the Middle East. Both of us have an interest in improving our relationships; both us are in the Western camp.”
The strained diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey prompted Turkey in October 2009 to bar Israel from participating, together with the U.S. and Italy, in military exercises in Turkey. And it virtually ended Israeli tourism to Turkey. Nevertheless, Turkey remains Israel’s third largest trading partner. In fact, bilateral trade actually increased by 25 percent between 2009 and 2010, and rose by 40 percent in the first quarter of this year. And although Turkey pulled its ambassador from Israel following the flotilla deaths, Israeli Ambassador to Turkey Gabi Levy never left Ankara.
“With the Arab Spring,” wrote Ben-Meir, “Jerusalem and Ankara’s shared strategic interests are becoming ever clearer, particularly with the ongoing unrest in neighboring Syria. These interests are serving to catapult both sides over the obstacles that have hindered their reconciliation …”
Helping to pave the way for an Israeli-Turkish reconciliation was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s letter to Erdogan on June 12 in which he congratulated him on his re-election and spoke of a desire to settle their differences. Should an accord be signed, Ben-Meir said he believes the Turkish media would publish the Netanyahu letter “to justify the rapprochement.”
In it, Netanyahu wrote: “My government will be happy to work with the new Turkish government on finding a resolution to all outstanding issues between our countries in the hope of re-establishing our cooperation and renewing the spirit of friendship which has characterized the relations between our peoples for many generations.”
Equally as important were the recent comments of Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who nearly two years ago humiliated the Turkish ambassador to Israel by deliberately placing him in a lower chair during a televised meeting. In a meeting last month with seven Turkish journalists, Ayalon said he never meant to humiliate the ambassador, that he had meant it as a joke, and that he had immediately sent a letter of apology to him.
He told the journalists that the time was ripe to restore Israeli-Turkish relations and that he supported Turkey’s decision to have talks with Hamas in an attempt to forge a unity government with the Palestinian Authority.
“We would kiss the hands of every Turk if Hamas said they accept the Oslo [Treaty], condemn terror and recognize Israel,” Ayalon said.
Ben-Meir added that the recent developments in Syria, the Palestinian territories, Iran and throughout the region should compel Israel and Turkey to work together for their shared interests.
“Both countries have strong leaders who are now positioned to galvanize their people in support of a re-establishment of relations that serves to advance shared interests,” he wrote.