(CNSNews.com) – Turkey reportedly is considering downgrading its diplomatic relations with Israel amid a continuing rift between the one-time allies over Israel’s deadly interception of a flotilla of ships headed for Gaza.
Turkish media outlets cited official sources as saying Ankara’s ambassador, who was recalled following the May 31 incident in the Mediterranean, may not return to Tel Aviv, depending on Israel’s response to a set of Turkish demands. There was no formal comment from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
The reports come just days after the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) – a Turk – urged those of the bloc’s member states which have ties with Israel to sever them.
Turkey’s expectations of Israel, according to the Turkish reports, include a willingness to cooperate with a United Nations inquiry into the affair, a formal apology, financial compensation, the return of the Mavi Marmara and two other Turkish ships still docked in the Israeli port of Ashdod, and a lifting of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza.
The only one of those likely to be met, in the short term at least, is the release of the ships, which were diverted to Ashdod after the interception at sea. Israel is mulling easing the blockade – which it says is necessary to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas – but has ruled out lifting it altogether.
The Israeli government earlier rejected U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s call for an international probe into the boarding of the Mavi Marmara and the deaths of nine pro-Palestinian activists during clashes with Israeli troops.
Israel has set up its own inquiry, chaired by a retired Israel Supreme Court judge and including two foreign observers, former First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble and Brig.-Gen. Ken Watkin, until recently the Judge Advocate General of Canada’s armed forces.
Although the Turkish reports suggest a downgrading of ties to charge d’affaires level rather than a complete break, the move would be keenly felt by Israel, which has enjoyed strong ties with Turkey for decades.
The relationship goes back to early 1949, when Turkey recognized the fledgling state of Israel, although it has gone through difficult patches before, arising from Israeli-Arab tensions. Through the 1980s until 1991, relations were kept at below ambassadorial level at Turkey’s insistence.
The first official visits by Israeli and Turkish heads of state did not take place until 1994 and 1996 respectively. Military-to-military ties and trade links expanded through the 1990s and beyond.
After Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002, Israel was faced with a Turkish leadership increasingly supportive of Hamas, the Islamist group which seized power in Gaza in 2007 and used the territory to launch thousands of rocket attacks against Israel.
The rift widened after the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 and, especially, after the Israeli military offensive against Hamas in 2008-9. Since the flotilla raid Turkey has frozen military cooperation and suspended energy projects.
In the aftermath of the flotilla raid, Ecuador and South Africa recalled their ambassadors from Israel in protest. Nicaragua announced it was cutting diplomatic ties, emulating a step taken 18 months earlier by its left-wing regional allies, Venezuela and Bolivia, in the wake of Israel’s military offensive against Hamas.
Early this week Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary-general of the OIC, said countries in the Islamic bloc with ties with Israel should reconsider them.
Speaking during a visit to Malaysia, Ihsanoglu said this was one of the resolutions agreed upon during a recent emergency meeting of the OIC executive committee.
About one-third of the 56 countries in the OIC have relations of some type with Israel, with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan the most significant.
Israel also has embassies in OIC member states Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It has relations, but with non-resident envoys, with Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Togo, Gabon, Gambia, Guyana, Suriname, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
OIC members which suspended relations with Israel in the past include Mauritania in 2009, Niger in 2002, and Morocco, Tunisia and Oman in 2000.