Israel, Turkey look towards reconciliation

While relations between Israel and Turkey are likely to remain tense, analysts say better ties would benefit both sides.

By LINDA GRADSTEIN/THE MEDIA LINE
February 24, 2013 16:44
4 minute read.
Activists in Mavi Marmara welcoming ceremony

Pro-Palestinian activists with Turkish flags 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Despite the widespread belief that ties between Israel and Turkey are virtually non-existent, if fact, Israeli and Turkish officials have held a series of meetings, the most recent three weeks ago, according to Israeli officials who confirmed media reports in both countries. The goal has been to find a formula for an apology acceptable to Ankara for the 2010 “Gaza flotilla affair” in which Israeli troops killed nine Turkish citizens during a violent clash on a ship trying to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

“There’s an ongoing dialogue and we’re speaking to them and trying to find a formula that they will accept,” a senior Israeli official told The Media Line on condition of anonymity. “They’re upset with us and we believe that is not fair.”

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The Turkish weekly Radikal reported that Israel may apologize to Turkey for “operational errors” during the raid on the Mavi Marmara in advance of President Obama’s visit to the Middle East next month. He has pressed for reconciliation between the two American allies.

Turkey has demanded a formal apology for Israel’s conduct during the flotilla. In May 2010, Israeli naval commandos boarded the Turkish-flagged ship which set out to break the blockade Israel implemented when Hamas took control of the Gaza in 2007 in order to prevent materials that could be used militarily from falling into Hamas’ hands. The soldiers encountered violent resistance and nine Turkish citizens were killed in the clashes that ensued. Turkey insists those killed were civilian passengers while the Israel insists they were agents provocateur In addition to the apology, Turkey is demanding compensation for the families of those killed, and an end to Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.

Israel has expressed “regret” that innocent civilians were killed but has refused to “apologize”, saying the soldiers were attacked when they boarded the ship. A United Nations commission has upheld that account, but also accused Israel of using disproportionate force.

“In the past, some parts of the Israeli government including Defense Minister Ehud Barak and to some extent even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, were ready to go pretty far to apologize to Turkey,” Dror Zeevi, an expert on Turkey at Ben Gurion University told The Media Line. “But this was blocked by others in the government, especially former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.”

Lieberman is currently on hiatus as foreign minister as he faces charges of corruption and Netanyahu is enmeshed in efforts to form a new coalition.

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“It is possible that the new Israeli government will go even further towards an apology,” he said.

In another sign of possible reconciliation, Israel this month supplied advanced electronic warfare systems to the Turkish Air Force. It was the first exchange of military equipment with Turkey since the raid in 2010. The warfare systems will significantly upgrade the capabilities of the Turkish Air Force’s early warning systems. They are made by ELTA, a subsidiary of state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, and were ordered by Boeing, the American aircraft manufacturer, for Turkey.

Despite the tensions, economic ties continue. Turkey is Israel’s sixth largest export destination and the level of trade between the two countries rose to $2 billion dollars in 2011. Israel supplies Turkey with high-tech defense equipment. Israel buys Turkish military boots and uniforms as well as vegetables and other processed foods.

On the diplomatic level, the relations are handled by second secretaries, the lowest level of diplomatic representatives. Turkey’s ambassador to Israel was recalled after the flotilla affair and Israel’s ambassador to Turkey was asked to leave Ankara.

“They insisted that the relations be on the level of second secretary,” the Israeli official said. “We’ve made it very clear that we want to go back to where we were before all of this happened. At the same time, I don’t see any real evidence that Turkey is interested in that happening.”

But money can sometimes override politics. In this case, Israel’s recent discoveries of huge quantities of natural gas off its coast could push the two countries to move beyond their differences. Earlier this month, Israel proposed building a pipeline under the Mediterranean Sea to southern Turkey. The pipeline would be used to market the natural gas to Western Europe, and would cost an estimated $2 billion. It would also ensure Turkey a cheap supply of natural gas.

Before the flotilla, Israel and Turkey had extremely close relations. As a large Muslim country, Israel especially valued that relationship, with the Turks often functioning as mediator between Israel and the Islamic world, and in particular, with the Islamist Hamas movement. Now, Turkey has been frozen out of any mediating role.

Israel and Turkey are both threatened by the ongoing chaos in Syria. Both countries share borders with Syria, and both are concerned that violence could spill over into their borders. In October, a stray Syrian mortar shell killed five Turkish citizens. Turkey is also hosting at least 150,000 Syrian refugees in camps along the border.

Israel, for its part, is concerned that the large chemical weapons stocks in Syria could fall into the hands of Iranian and Syrian-proxy Hezbollah guerillas in southern Lebanon. Israel also fears that Syria could strike Israel as a way of diverting attention from the civil war.

While relations between Israel and Turkey are likely to remain tense, analysts say better ties would benefit both sides.

“I think the Turkish government has come to the conclusion that some kind of working relationship with Israel is necessary, and Israel is certainly interested in that,” said Zeevi.

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