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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
speaks with an Israeli soldier wounded
aboard the Mavi Marmara in May 2010.
No quick reconciliation for Turkey-Israel
ties, but Turkey rethinking rift.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
ade of the Gaza Strip.
At the time, Israeli analysts saw in
Turkey's abandonment of Israel part
he Turkey-Israel relationship is
of a wider regional foreign policy shift.
not out of the woods just yet.
Devised by Turkish Foreign Minister
After some positive signs in
Ahmet Davutoglu and dubbed "zero prob-
recent weeks that the once-close allies
lems," it entailed a move toward closer ties
were moving to repair the rift that ripped
with the Iran-Syria axis at Israel's expense.
wide open last year after nine Turks were
Ironically, the U.N. commission investi-
killed by Israeli forces in a confrontation
gating the Mavi Marmara affair provided
on a Gaza-bound flotilla of ships, Turkey's
the platform for a possible Israel-Turkey
prime minister renewed his hard line on
reconciliation. Headed by former New
Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer
"Normalization of relations between
and co-chaired by former Colombian
the two countries is unthinkable," Recep
President Alvar Uribe, it included repre-
Tayyip Erdogan said July 8 in a speech
sentatives from Israel and Turkey.
to the Turkish Parliament, "unless Israel
According to unofficial reports, the
apologizes for this illegal act, which is
Palmer Commission found that Israel's
against international law and values, pays
blockade of Gaza and its interception of
compensation to the relatives of those who the Turkish vessel on the high seas both
lost their lives in this atrocious event and
were legal, but that the commandos used
lifts the embargo on Gaza."
excessive force in taking over the Mavi
Israel says it will not apologize for the
Marmara. The report also allegedly cen-
incident, which took place aboard the
sured Turkey for encouraging the activists.
Turkish-flagged ship Mavi Marmara on
May 31, 2010, but says it is willing to
express regret for the loss of life. It is also
Unhappy with the text, the Turks alleg-
willing to compensate the families, but on
edly asked that the official publication
the condition that the payments preclude
of the findings be deferred to enable the
future civil claims against the individual
Israeli and Turkish representatives on the
commission — former senior Foreign
For most of the past decade, Israel and
Ministry officials Yosef Ciechanover for
Turkey, two major non-Arab regional
Israel and Ozdem Sanberk for Turkey —
players, enjoyed a very close relationship
to hammer out a compromise.
that was often described as "strategic."
But Ciechanover and Sanberk have been
Israeli fighter planes trained over Turkish
working for the past several months on
airspace, the two countries held joint
something much wider: a compromise
naval rescue exercises and Israel provided
that will allow the full normalization of
Turkey with anti-terrorist equipment and
Israel-Turkey relations. With the defer-
know-how. In 2007 and 2008, Erdogan
ment, they now have until July 27 to get
even mediated indirect Israeli-Syrian
the job done. Apparently they are look-
ing for a formulation that in Turkish
But the Islamist prime minister, who
will sound like an Israeli apology and in
came to power in 2003, has been consis-
Hebrew like an Israeli expression of regret
tently critical of Israeli policies toward the
for loss of life.
Palestinians, often using harsh language to
Insiders say this is why the U.N. report
vent his feelings.
on the incident has been delayed.
Things came to a head with the 2009
Short of an apology, official Israel has
Gaza War, and relations between the
made every effort to effect a reconciliation.
two countries since then have cooled.
After Erdogan's re-election on June 12,
The Mavi Marmara affair exacerbated
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent
the already-existing rift, with Erdogan
a conciliatory message.
demanding an apology from Israel and
"My government will be happy to work
Israel accusing the Turkish government of with the new Turkish government on find-
encouraging the Turkish radicals behind
ing a solution to all outstanding issues
the maritime challenge to its naval block-
between our countries in the hope of re-
establishing our cooperation and renew-
ing the spirit of friendship which has
characterized the relations between our
peoples for many generations," Netanyahu
There were even rumors that Israel
had entrusted Erdogan with a mediation
mission for the release of Gilad Shalit, the
Israeli soldier believed to be held captive
in Gaza since June 2006.
The Turks also made conciliatory
gestures. A few weeks before this year's
planned flotilla to challenge the Gaza
blockade, they canceled the participation
of the Mavi Marmara. Their readiness to
work for a compromise within the context
of the Palmer Commission was another
sign of willingness to cut a deal.
But both sides had their hard-liners —
Erdogan on the Turkish side and Foreign
Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the Israeli.
"Turkey wants to give the impression
that it can dictate terms and that we'll
accept them as if it were a superpower:'
Lieberman grumbled at an early July
meeting of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs
and Defense Committee. `As far as we are
concerned, there is no reason to apolo-
Lieberman was backed up by Tel Aviv
University's Ehud Toledano, an expert on
Turkey, who argued that there was no need
to sweet talk the Turks because Israel had
little to gain from a restoration of ties.
Writing in Haaretz, Toledano claimed that
Erdogan had eroded the Turkish army's
independence and taken control of MIT,
the Turkish intelligence service, and thus
the damage to Israel's strategic ties with
Turkey was irreversible.
In other words, reconciliation would not
During the estrangement from Turkey,
Israel has drawn closer to Greece, Turkey's
The relationship paid off in early July
when Greek authorities delayed this year's
planned Gaza flotilla. When U.S. and
Canadian vessels slipped away from Greek
shores, Greek frogmen forced them back.
Israel's newfound closeness with
Greece also is a message to Turkey that
Israel has other options in the eastern
Mediterranean. Israeli tourists, too, have
been boycotting Turkey and instead going
to the Greek islands in droves. This week,
Greece's president visited Israel.
Yet while the annual volume of trade
between Israel and Greece has increased
dramatically to about $140 million, it is
nowhere that of Israel and Turkey, which
at approximately $3.5 billion remains
largely unaffected, except for the military
For Israel, there is no way Greece can
fully replace Turkey.
Still, the Greek connection is one reason
that Turkey is clearly rethinking its dam-
aged relationship with Israel — Erdogan's
latest outburst notwithstanding.
A more important reason, experts say, is
the impact on Turkey of the Arab Spring.
Syria has proven to be an especially prob-
lematic and unreliable ally for Turkey.
Turkish leaders have criticized Syrian
President Bashar Assad's cruel methods of
repression, and more than 12,000 Syrian
refugees have fled Syria for Turkey.
The Turks, Israeli experts say, are find-
ing that to effectively play the dominant
regional role they seek, they need Israel.
Whether all this will lead to a reconcili-
ation is too early to say. Things should
become clearer by the end of the month,
when the Palmer Commission's report on
last year's flotilla incident is due. I