'Syria crisis necessitated Turkey apology'

Netanyahu says fear that Damascus's chemical weapons will fall into the hands of terror organizations led to apology.

March 24, 2013 03:12
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at last cabinet meeting of current govenment, March 10, 2013.

Netanyahu looking morose at cabinet meeting 370. (photo credit: GPO)

Israel has apologized to Turkey – for killing nine Turks on the Mavi Marmara three years ago – because of the volatile situation in Syria, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Saturday night.

“The fact that the crisis in Syria is getting worse by the minute was the central consideration in my eyes,” Netanyahu said on his Facebook page of his apology Friday afternoon in a phone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for “any errors that could have led to loss of life.”

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According to a statement put out by Netanyahu’s office after the conversation, Erdogan and Netanyahu “agreed to restore normalization between Israel and Turkey, including the dispatch of ambassadors and the cancellation of legal steps against IDF soldiers.”

Netanyahu, according to the statement, told Erdogan the tragic results on the Mavi Marmara were “unintentional and that Israel expresses regret over injuries and loss of life.”

The statement continued that “in light of the Israeli investigation into the incident, which pointed out several operational errors,” Netanyahu “apologized to the Turkish people for any errors that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete the agreement on compensation.”

Erdogan said on Saturday Israel’s apology met Turkey’s conditions and signaled its growing regional clout.

“We are entering a new period in both Turkey and the region,” said Erdogan.

“We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”

Turkey recalled its ambassador with Israel, and significantly downgraded its diplomatic ties following the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010 where Israel Navy commandos, attacked by activists on a ship intended to break the blockade of Gaza, killed nine Turks. Erdogan demanded that Israel apologize, pay compensation, and lift the blockade of Gaza to allow a normalization of ties.

During the telephone conversation, which took place from Ben-Gurion Airport with US President Barack Obama in the room just before he boarded Air Force One for Jordan, Netanyahu said that Israel had already lifted “restriction on the movement of civilians and goods to all of the Palestinian territories, including Gaza.”

Erdogan announced on Saturday that he may visit Gaza and the West Bank next month.

“Syria is disintegrating, and the huge advanced weapons stockpiles are beginning to fall into the hands of different forces,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.

The Syrian reality, which includes global jihadist elements on its border with Israel on the Golan, creates tremendous security challenges for Israel, he wrote. “It is important that Turkey and Israel, which border Syria, can communicate with each other, and this is true regarding other challenges as well.”

Netanyahu said Obama’s visit created an opportunity to end the three-year crisis with Ankara.

The US, an ally of both Turkey and Israel, has for months been trying to come up with a formula that would end their crisis, believing that a stable Israeli-Turkish relationship is key now, with the Middle East, and especially Syria, in the throes of tremendous upheaval.

National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror, in a Channel 2 interview on Saturday night, denied that there was any US pressure on Israel regarding the issue.

“This was our idea, and we brought it to the Americans. They helped us put it together with Turkey,” he said. “There have been contacts between us and the Turks for a long time. If the Turks would not have made mistakes during the process, it could have happened earlier, but there is no doubt that the US presence, and US assistance, helped in bringing this to a conclusion.”

Erdogan, who has relentlessly bashed Israel since the incident, called Zionism a crime against humanity at a UN forum last month. Last week he said in a Danish newspaper that he had been misunderstood, and Netanyahu alluded to this semi-retraction in his conversation with Erdogan.

Netanyahu said he saw the interview, and “appreciated” Erdogan’s clarification Amidror said he did not think that the Turkish premier would continue to criticize Israel to the same degree he has in the past, and that if he did not want an improvement in the relations he would not have consented to the formula that was agreed upon. He also noted that Turkey assented to cancel all legal steps against IDF personnel.

“What we wanted is to get to a situation where the relationship will be upgraded so that we can cooperate more regarding Syria, and will give Israel more freedom of action in the Middle East and elsewhere,” he said.

Amidror added that this move was also important because Israel wanted to upgrade its ties with NATO, something that Turkey, as a NATO member, had continuously vetoed.

Israeli officials were careful to stress that the ending of the Mavi Marmara crisis did not mean Israel and Turkey would necessarily return to the type of ties they had before the incident, or before Erdogan came to power in 2002.

Asked how he felt, one senior official said, “I feel like a baby was born, but that now it is dependant on the parents to determine what will happen with it.”

The official said he hoped that this would create an opening for better ties, even if they did not return to what they once were.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon welcomed the move, calling the decision “responsible,” and adding that the arrangement did not contradict “the principles we have held for the past three years.”

“Regional developments and American involvement allowed for the crisis to be resolved. This is a common interest to both Israel and Turkey,” the defense minister said.

In his previous position as strategic affairs minister, Ya’alon was involved in talks with the Turks over the past three years.

Former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, who was the leading voice in the previous government against apologizing to the Turks, issued a statement slamming the move.

Calling Netanyahu’s apology a “grave error,” Liberman said that anyone who saw the pictures from the Mavi Marmara understood that the IDF commandos acted out of self-defense.

This apology, he said, “harms the motivation of IDF soldiers and their readiness to go out on similar missions in the future, and strengthens the hands of the extremists in the region.”

Liberman said this also harmed Israel’s unending struggle over the righteousness of its cause and the morality of its soldiers.

He said that Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu were responsible for the deterioration in the ties, and that Israel’s apology – even as Erdogan refused to apologize for his remark calling Zionism a crime against humanity – harmed Israel’s honor and standing in the region and the world.

According to the Turkish daily Hurriyet, meanwhile, Erdogan made clear that the dispatch of an ambassador to Israel would not take place immediately.

“We will see what will be put into practice during the process. If they move forward in a promising way, we will make our contribution.

Then, there would be an exchange of ambassadors,” Erdogan was quoted as saying.

According to the paper, Turkish and Israeli diplomats will hold technical talks over the next few days in Ankara to discuss the compensation package for the relatives of the activists killed in the raid.

“We took a stand but we managed to resolve the process without being [overly] intractable,” Erdogan was quoted as saying. “We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”

Erdogan, according to the paper, said Netanyahu’s statement, which included the word “apology” and not only “regret,” “was issued in accordance with Turkey’s expectations.”

Obama, during a press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman on Friday, called the phone call between Erdogan and Netanyahu a “beginning.”

“This is a work in progress,” he said. He added that the two leaders “don’t have to agree on everything in order for them to come together on a wide range of common interests and concerns.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called Netanyahu on Saturday and praised him for the rapprochement with Turkey.

Netanyahu, according to the Greek newspaper, Ekathimerini, also spoke to Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Saturday, who called to congratulate him on forming a new government. The Prime Minister’s Office would not confirm that telephone call.

The deterioration in Israeli-Turkish ties over the past three years led to the strengthening of Israel’s ties with a number of Turkish rivals, foremost among them Greece and Cyprus. It is likely the apology to the Turks was raised in the Netanyahu-Samaras conversation.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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