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Israel’s ties with Turkey remain troubled

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Nearly two years after Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship in a pro-Palestinian flotilla of six vessels trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, Israel’s bilateral relationship with Turkey, once a key ally, has yet to recover from this violent incident on the high seas.

The confrontation took place on May 31, 2010, in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea, claiming the lives of eight Turkish nationals and one American of Turkish origin and injuring several Israeli soldiers. Turkey demanded an apology, compensation and the lifting of the siege. Israel, having warned Turkey that the flotilla would be challenged, refused to apologize.

With Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan having described the raid as “state terrorism,” Turkey recalled its ambassador, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol. Turkey’s decision to recall Celikkol occurred several months after he was publicly humiliated by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in a bizarre encounter in which he asked him to explain the broadcast of a provocative Turkish television drama deemed to be anti-Israel. At Turkey’s request, Ayalon eventually apologized, but his mistreatment of Celikkol left scars on both sides.

Tensions flared yet again in September 2011 with the release of the Palmer report, commissioned by the United Nations to study Israel’s 2010 raid. The report validated Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza – which has been controlled by Hamas since 2006 – as legal and appropriate, but noted that Israel had used “excessive and unreasonable force” in stopping the Turkish ship.

The Palmer report was released after an Israeli panel, the Turkel Commission, concluded that Israeli commanders had acted in self-defence, and that Israel’s siege of Gaza was in accord with international law. Erdogan condemned the findings, saying they lacked “value and credibility.” Certainly, the Turkel report was at odds with a Turkish report that charged Israel with violating the norms of international law and branded Israel’s raid as “tantamount to banditry and piracy.”

Much to Israel’s disappointment, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu rejected the Palmer report and announced that Turkey would expel Israel’s ambassador in Ankara, Gabby Levy, downgrade ties with Israel and suspend all military agreements.

In the wake of Levy’s expulsion, Erdogan threatened to dispatch war ships  to the eastern Mediterranean. He also suggested that Israel’s raid had been a “cause for war,” leaving the impression that Turkey might use military means to deal with Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

A harsh critic of Israel’s 2009 invasion of Gaza, he warned that Turkey’s bilateral relations with Israel – which reached a peak of intensity in 2005 when he visited Israel – would “never be normal again” if Israel failed to comply with his three basic demands. Turkey’s embassy in Washington, meanwhile, issued a communiqué saying Turkey would seek to prosecute the Israeli commandos who had commandeered the Mavi Marmara.

For the past two years, Israel has attempted to heal the breach, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having called for a normalization of relations in the spirit of friendship and with Defence Minister Ehud Barak having said that the dispute can be resolved through a “creative formula.”

Two Israeli envoys, Joseph Ciechanover, a senior diplomat, and Moshe Ya’alon, the strategic affairs minister and vice-premier, discussed the issue with Turkish representatives. These talks failed because Israel prefers to issue a statement of regret rather than an outright official apology.

The United States and Germany have both urged Turkey to rebuild ties with Israel, saying they are critical for regional stability and security. Davutoglu has said that foreign mediation is not necessary, since “the demands of Turkey are clear.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a hardliner in Israel’s conflict with Turkey, claims that Israel has no reason to apologize. “We will not be Turkey’s punching bag,” he said, noting that Turkey’s policies are to blame for the breakdown in relations.

According to the daily Yediot Achronot, Lieberman’s aides called for drastic retaliatory measures to be taken against Turkey, notably Israeli co-operation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Turkey’s arch enemy. But Netanyahu’s office distanced itself from Lieberman’s supposed plan, saying Israel’s objective is to ease tensions and renew relations with Turkey. 

Ya’alon, having accused the Turkish government of fomenting the crisis by allowing the Mavi Marmara to leave port in the first place, believes that Israel’s alliance with Turkey is finished. His assessment is shared by Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.

In a paper, Get Tough with Turkey, he claims that Turkey’s demands are “unreasonable” and that an Israeli apology will not change its “anti-Israel policy.” In Inbar’s estimation, Turkey’s Islamist government has aligned itself with “radical Islamist forces, siding with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.” He adds, “Within the framework of the new Turkish foreign policy, good relations with Israel are a burden.”

Yigal Schleifer, a blogger and journalist who writes on Turkish affairs, counters that Israel is at least partly at fault for the impasse.

Israel neither understands the growing resonance of the unresolved Palestinian problem in Turkey nor does Israel grasp Turkey’s view that its occupation of the West Bank is a source of instability as well as an obstacle in Turkey’s ambition to construct a more harmonious regional order in the Middle East.

Erdogan, a strong advocate of a two-state solution, has blamed Israeli “intransigence” for the deadlock in the Mideast peace process. Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul – who has hailed U.S. President Barack Obama’s call on Israel to pull back to the pre-1967 lines within the context of mutually agreed land swaps – has written that “a dignified and viable Palestine, living side by side with Israel, will not diminish [Israel’s] security, but fortify it.”

The Israeli government, having rejected Obama’s proposal, is displeased with Turkey’s courtship of Hamas and incensed with Erdogan’s claim that Hamas is a “political party” rather than “a terror organization.”

Israel’s bilateral relations with Turkey, though extremely strained, have not broken down completely. Two-way trade remains vibrant. Turkey, in 2010, sent two firefighting aircraft to extinguish a major blaze on Mount Carmel, while Israel dispatched humanitarian aid to Turkey after an earthquake there in 2011.

Since the Mavi Marmara incident, however, Israel has upgraded ties with Greece, Turkey’s rival, and, together with southern Cyprus, has begun exploring for gas in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey, having laid a claim to natural resources there too, has described Israel’s offshore drilling as “madness.” Clearly, the scramble for gas in the Mediterranean Sea has added yet another complicated layer to Israel’s troubled and convoluted relationship with Turkey.

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