With Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continuing to call for an Israeli apology for May’s Mavi Marmara incident, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Wednesday with Shayetet 13 commandos who took part in the deadly raid on the ship, referred to their “professionalism,” “heroism” and “restraint,” and made clear – without having to say so – that no apology was in the works.

“The Shayetet’s mission was vital, necessary, legal and of the utmost importance,” Netanyahu said, referring to the raid which left nine passengers of the ship dead after the commandos came under attack when they boarded the boat to keep it from breaking Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.

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“The operation was carried out under very difficult conditions,” Netanyahu said.

“You, the fighters, encountered a violent terrorist-supporting force armed with knives, clubs and electric chain saws, and also with arms."

“I have to say that your actions against people that came to kill you and tried to kill you were professional and characterized by heroism, restraint and a morality that I don’t believe could be exemplified any better by any army or navy in the world.”

Speaking while both the Turkel Committee and a UN commission were still conducting their investigations into the incident, Netanyahu told the soldiers at their base in Atlit that “you enjoy my full backing as well as the full backing of the Israeli government, the Israeli people and of every decent person looking at the facts as they are.”

Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu’s visit to the base was not connected to the Turkel Committee or the UN commission, nor to Erdogan’s continual demand for an Israeli apology and reparation payments to victims of the incident and their families. Rather, the sources said, the prime minister just wanted to show support and appreciation to the commandos involved.

Erdogan has said that an apology and reparations were a precondition to restoring normalcy to Israeli- Turkish ties. In recent speeches, however, Netanyahu has made clear he realizes that the relations have changed dramatically, comparing the souring of Israeli-Turkish ties to what happened to Iranian-Israeli ties after the Iranian revolution in 1979.

“Things have changed in Iran, and unfortunately in other places as well, almost overnight,” he said in a reference to Turkey earlier in the month, at a speech at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session.

Despite the tidal wave of rhetorical barbs against Israel flowing out of Ankara since the flotilla incident, Jerusalem has taken a very moderate public tone, not wanting – according to diplomatic sources – to make the situation worse, or harm the bilateral business ties that still exist between the two countries.

Netanyahu, during his comments to the commandos Tuesday, said that the Shayetet has dealt with other vessels since that incident, and even in the same flotilla as the Mavi Marmara, without any casualties, since those other boats did not harbor people coming with violent intent.

“You acted to defend Israel against the people who came to help break our bulwark against terrorist infiltration,” Netanyahu said of the naval blockade of Gaza.

Netanyahu described Gaza as an “Iranian terror base that endangers the State of Israel. It is very close to us, it is very dangerous. This is not a theoretical danger – thousands of missiles and rockets from Gaza have rained down on us. There is a constant attempt by Hamas, backed by Iran, to bring more and more weapons directed against Israeli citizens.”

Netanyahu said the task of his government, and the Olmert government that preceded it and established the naval blockade, was to stop the arms smuggling “using legitimate means at our disposal – the naval blockade, and other ways in which we work, both nearby and far away – to stop the entry of these lethal weapons directed against Israeli citizens.”

Netanyahu told the commandos he was glad to see among them those who “managed to get through this experience and recuperate. I salute all of you. You act in the name of the State of Israel for Israel’s security. Nobody’s better than you. I salute you.”

Netanyahu was accompanied on his visit by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and navy commander Adm. Eli Marom.

“You shot at whom you had to, and not at those you didn’t have to,” Ashkenazi said.

Alluding to the classified missions the unit carries out, Ashkenazi said it was “a pity that the country does not know what we know about these fighters, and a little about what our enemies have experienced from them.”

In a related development, the security cabinet is expected to meet on Wednesday to discuss the missiles that have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip and are threatening IAF flights over and near the area.

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