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Turkey’s ambassador hails reconciliation with Israel

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Tuncay Babali

Turkey’s ambassador to Canada, Tuncay Babali, has hailed the announcement that Turkey and Israel intend to normalize diplomatic relations after an increasingly acrimonious three-year dispute.

“It will definitely be beneficial for both countries, as well as for the peace and stability of [our] ever-more volatile region,” Babali said in an interview last week. “It will also give [us] an opportunity to further diversify and deepen our relations.”

Babali made his comment to The CJN just days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally apologized for an Israeli commando raid on a Turkish ship in May 2010. The raid claimed the lives of nine pro-Palestinian Turkish political activists trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, controlled by a Hamas government since 2007.

In the aftermath of the incident, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded an apology, compensation and the lifting of Israel’s siege of Gaza. Israeli and Turkish diplomats tried, but failed, to resolve the issue in direct talks.

As a result of the impasse, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador in Ankara after withdrawing its own ambassador in Tel Aviv and downgraded bilateral relations to the level of second secretary.

The crisis was defused on March 22 as U.S. President Barack Obama was leaving Israel after a state visit. Obama, who had publicly urged Israel and Turkey to end their increasingly acrimonious dispute, brokered the rapprochement by placing a phone call to Erdogan and putting Netanyahu on the line.

Netanyahu, in a 20-minute conversation with Erdogan, expressed regret for the “unintentional” loss of lives and injuries.”

In response to these developments, Babali, a career diplomat who has served in Washington, D.C., London and Sofia, Bulgaria, said that Israel’s apology was a long-standing demand after Israeli troops stormed the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in a flotilla of ships heading toward Gaza.

“We never bluffed. We just insisted on a case we thought we were right. We stressed time and time again that Turkey has been a friendly country to Israel and the Jewish people. That was the main reason we expected an apology,” Babali said.

“If we had not considered Israel as a friend we respected or valued the centuries-long historical bonds between our two nations, our reaction since the very beginning would have been totally different. Only true friends apologize to each other.”

Israel’s apology was the outcome of “arduous negotiations” stretching back three years, he said.

The dispute worsened in February when Erdogan, a sharp and outspoken critic of Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians, described Zionism as a “crime against humanity” on a par with antisemitism and fascism. Erdogan claimed he had been misunderstood, but his slur sparked an international furor.

Netanyahu called it a “dark and slanderous remark.” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described it as “hurtful and divisive.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he found it “objectionable.”

A March 22 communiqué issued by Netanyahu’s office elaborated on his apology by phone earlier that day: “In light of Israel’s investigation into the incident, which pointed to a number of operational mistakes, the prime minister expressed Israel’s apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury and agreed to conclude an agreement on compensation.”

Erdogan accepted the apology, saying he attaches “importance” to “the shared history and centuries of old ties of strong friendship and co-operation between the Jewish and Turkish peoples.” He added that the deterioration of relations had been “regrettable,” given Turkey’s “vital strategic” relationship with Israel.

Erdogan, who plans to visit Gaza in April, also noted that Israel has substantially eased restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian areas, including Gaza, and that Turkey and Israel would work together “to improve the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories.”

On March 25, Erdogan suggested that normalization would take effect only after Israel pays compensation and lifts its siege of Gaza. On March 27, the Jerusalem Post reported that a dispute on the level of compensation has broken out, with Turkey reportedly demanding $1 million for each person killed and Israel apparently prepared to pay $100,000.

Israeli President Shimon Peres had words of praise for the reconciliation agreement, while Gen. Benny Gantz, the Israeli chief of staff, said it “advances our interests.”

Netanyahu said the current civil war in Syria was a major factor in his decision to issue an apology. Avigdor Lieberman, the former Israeli foreign minister, called the move “a serious mistake.”

Babali, noting that Turkey was the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel and pointing out that Turkey and Israel had “strong political, economic and strategic” relations before the Mavi Marma incident, said that Turkey values its historical ties with Jews.

“We never had any problem with the Jewish People,” he said. “When Jews were expelled from Spain, Portugal and elsewhere in Europe, the Ottoman sultan issued a formal invitation and sent his navy to bring them to Ottoman lands.

“During the 19th century, Jews from Russia found sanctuary in Ottoman land. And in the 1930s, a new era of Turkish assistance to Jewish refugees began when thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution found refuge in Turkey or safely moved to Palestine [from Turkey]. Turkish diplomats in Vichy France, the island of Rhodes, in Greece and in other places put their lives on the line to save Jews.”

Claiming that Erdogan is not an antisemite, Babali declared, “I categorically reject the smear campaign of labelling our prime minister, or other [Turkish] leaders, as antisemitic. Our leaders have stated on numerous occasions that they, like the rest of the Turkish people, are not antisemitic. Antisemitism is alien to the Turkish people, culture and tradition. Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu have said numerous times that antisemitism is a crime against humanity, and never questioned Israel’s legitimate right to exist and its security concerns. Our sincere efforts in mediation between Israel and Syria between 2002 and 2009 should be seen as an indication of our approach.”

Turkey supports all efforts to find “a just, lasting and comprehensive” solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict on the basis of a two-state solution, Babali said.

Early this year, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon disclosed that Israel was prepared to mend relations with Turkey. Shortly afterward, Israel sent messages to Ankara voicing an interest in creating a more “positive dynamic” in its badly strained ties with Turkey. In the wake of this report, Ha’aretz reported that Netanyahu had rejected an offer by the then-Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, to write an apology to his Turkish counterpart.

In February, the Turkish newspaper Radikal reported that Israel might be ready to apologize. The report was published as Israeli and Turkish officials met in Rome to resolve the conflict.

Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, accompanied by the former director of the Israeli foreign ministry, Joseph Ciechanover, held talks with the director of Turkey’s foreign ministry and Turkey’s former envoy in Israel, Feridun Sinirlioglu. These discussions, however, ended in failure.

Late last year, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s current justice minister and former foreign affairs minister, attempted to defuse the tension by seeking a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, but he declined to see her.

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