Most media reports that dealt with Israel’s apology to Turkey late last month for “operational errors” in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens during the 2010 Mavi Mamara incident described it as something that was brokered by U.S. President Barack Obama on the final day of his visit to Israel.
While it’s true that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan after Obama, who initiated the call, handed Netanyahu the phone, the real story of what lead to the Israel-Turkey breakthrough goes far beyond the U.S. presidency.
Almost two years ago, Reuters reported that Israel made overtures to Turkey and initiated low-level meetings to find a way to re-establish ties. Reuters noted that Zvi Hauser, Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, was exploring ways of breaking the impasse in the hope that a “redeeming formula” for reconciliation could be found.
Avigdor Lieberman, then Israel’s foreign minister, was opposed to any apology, claiming that Israel, after all, had acted in justified self-defence after its commandos had been brutally assaulted. Lieberman also stated: “It is clear that [Erdogan] is looking not for accommodation, nor peace, nor normalization, but wants to humiliate the State of Israel, sap its international standing and harm our status in the region.”
Indeed, Erdogan’s hostility to Israel is deeply rooted and, it appears, deeply personal – as his recent characterization of Zionism as a crime against humanity would indicate. (Only after widespread international condemnation of his outrageous remark did Erdogan backtrack, claiming he only meant to criticize Israel’s actions against the Palestinians, but he did so in such a way as to compound the original insult with further lies, as this paper’s editor appropriately remarked in his March 28 column.)
In any event, it was primarily Erdogan himself who rejected Israel’s overtures, insisting that Israel not only apologize but end its naval blockade of Gaza.
At the beginning of August 2011, writing for the Gatestone Institute, Efraim Cohen discussed rumours of a deal and posited the following scenario: “The broad outlines of the deal suggest that Israel would offer a limited apology for ‘operational errors,’ and would pay compensation to the families of those who died. In return, Turkey would recognize the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and would agree not to seek legal action against Israeli soldiers who were involved.” This is precisely the deal that was reportedly struck last month, the culmination of a string of negotiations that took some time, despite the deal’s contours being known long ago (and confirmed in the Turkish paper Radikal on Feb. 20).
Significantly, Erdogan had to drop his demand that Israel end its naval blockade. (The UN-commissioned Palmer Report, released in September 2011, criticized operational mistakes made by Israel aboard the Mavi Marmara while at the same time affirming the legality of the blockade.) Currently, Erdogan is bragging about the apology he “extracted” from Israel and has indicated that there will be no “full” restoration of ties until Israel ends the blockade. If Turkey actually insists on changing the terms of the agreement, Erdogan will have to face Obama, not Netanyahu.
By carefully and persistently navigating this agreement and providing Obama an opportunity to take credit for the diplomatic breakthrough – a rare achievement for Obama on the Middle East file – Netanyahu showed statesmanship. Erdogan has shown crassness and bluster.
Still, as many analysts have pointed out, it’s in the interests of Turkey as well as Israel to have better relations while the broader region descends into uncertainty and (in the case of Syria) dangerous chaos.
Even during the period of frozen diplomatic relations following the Mavi Mamara imbroglio, as the March 30 Economist explained, Israel and Turkey managed to maintain military ties, in addition to trade worth $3 billion per year. With Israel’s current development of huge gas fields in the Mediterranean, a private Turkish energy company, with $1 billion of investments in Israel, wants Israel to allow a gas pipeline to be built to Turkey. This is just one important sign that, despite Erdogan, Israeli-Turkish possibilities are promising.
Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.