U.S. Attempts to Heal Israel-Turkey Rift, But Divisions Remain

By Patrick Goodenough | March 25, 2013 | 4:29 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara on March 1, 2013. During that recent visit Kerry began working on efforts to reach an understanding between Turkey and Israel, according to U.S. officials. (Photo: State Department)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration hailed its mediation of an agreement aimed at healing a deep rift between Israel and Turkey, but different emphases in the wording highlighted by the two sides over the weekend may yet stymie the reconciliation effort.

In a telephone conversation and an exchange of statements crafted with significant input from Secretary of State John Kerry, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sought to put an end to the bitter dispute between two of Washington’s closest Mideast allies.

In a statement late Saturday, Kerry said the U.S. “look[s] forward to an expeditious implementation of the agreement and the full normalization of relations so Israel and Turkey can work together to advance their common interests.”

Turkish leaders say the deal met their longstanding demands – an official apology for a 2010 Israeli commando raid of a Turkish ship trying to break a security blockade around the Gaza Strip; compensation for the families of those killed (violent clashes between the commandos and pro-Hamas activists onboard the Mavi Marmara left nine activists dead); and a lifting of Israel’s security blockade of Gaza.

“All our demands have now been met,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Saturday, a position echoed in a Turkish television program by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who linked the accomplishment to Turkey’s “tough negotiations in the last three years.”

“In the end our demands have been met,” Turkey’s Anadolu state news agency quoted Davutoglu as saying. “Otherwise, this issue would not close even if it continued for a century.”

Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning government has positioned itself as the Palestinians’ top regional ally, and sought to use the Mavi Marmara incident as a lever to force a change of Israeli policy on Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Netanyahu’s apology – not for the raid itself, but for “any errors that could have led to loss of life” during the incident – was pointedly directed at “the Turkish people,” suggesting he is looking beyond Erdogan’s tenure in the hope of a return to warmer ties between the two countries in the future.

Despite Turkish leaders’ assertions that their demands were satisfied, the agreement does not in fact include a lifting of the blockade of Gaza, as Turkey repeatedly has insisted over the past three years.

Instead, Netanyahu noted in the statement that Israel has already substantially lifted restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into Gaza, and that Turkish and Israeli leaders would work together to further improve the humanitarian situation there.

Moreover, it said the easing of restrictions would continue “as long as calm prevailed.  Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror in a radio interview Sunday warned that if rocket fire from Gaza resumed, “these moves will be slowed and even stopped and, if necessary, even reversed.”

That assertion appeared to contradict Turkey’s view of the agreement. According to Hamas, Erdogan informed its leader that he had secured an Israeli pledge to “lift the siege.”

Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 – violently wresting power from Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah after winning legislative elections – terrorists have fired thousands of rockets into Israel from the coastal territory.

After an Israeli security operation last November the attacks for several months, until a rocket was fired towards the city of Ashkelon on February 26. During President Obama’s visit to Israel last week two rockets were fired at the Israeli town of Sderot.

Islamist hostility

Although the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010 worsened Israeli-Turkish relations, they had already soured more than a year earlier. Erdogan – who had begun engaging with Hamas in 2006, even as he drew closer to the regimes in Syria and Iran – had a heated exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres at a Feb. 2009 forum in Davos, before storming off the stage.

After the ship boarding, Turkey withdrew its ambassador and began blocking Israeli guest participation in NATO exercises and events. Erdogan expressed hostility towards Israel at international gatherings, most recently just weeks ago when at a U.N. event in Vienna he described Zionism as a “crime against humanity” and likened it to fascism.

Turkish and Israeli officials are due to meet in the coming days to work out an “agreement on compensation/nonliability,” the latter a reference to a legal case Turkey has brought against top Israeli military officers over the Mari Marmara boarding.

Erdogan stressed in a speech on Sunday that normalization of diplomatic ties with Israel would not take place before “implementation” of the agreement is carried out.

In another sign of possible difficulties ahead, Erdogan in response to a reporter’s question also said it was too early to talk about dropping legal charges against Israeli generals.

In a statement posted on his Facebook page, Netanyahu attributed the decision to rebuild relations with Turkey to the “changing reality” in the region, citing as his main consideration the need to cooperate closely with Ankara over the crisis in Syria and the challenges it poses for both countries in the future.

Commenting on the Israel-Turkey agreement Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel, pointed out that the breakdown in ties had begun “long before” the Mavi Marmara episode.

“The real basis was the election of an Islamist government in Turkey. Discussions inside the Israeli government for years had known Prime Minister Mehdi Erdogan’s hatred for Israel but did not want to be seen as responsible for any breakdown of relations.”

Rubin acknowledged the agreement was “clearly in U.S. interests since it supposedly heals a rift between two countries that are close allies to itself in Washington’s eyes.” But he also advised a wait-and-see approach, concluding, “let’s see if this deal sticks or if there is any progress in fixing Israel-Turkey relations in the coming weeks.”

‘Honorable stance’

In its response to the Israel-Turkey agreement, the Turkish organization that led the ill-fated attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza called it a victory for “Turkey’s honorable stance.”

“The struggle will continue until the blockade is lifted,” Bulent Yldrm, head of the group Insani Yardim Vakfi (known by the acronym IHH) told Turkey’s Hurriyet daily.

As reported earlier, IHH is part of an Islamic “charitable” network that was designated by the U.S. government in 2008 for funding Hamas.

After the Mavi Marmara raid, the Israeli military claimed its troops opened fire in self-defense after activists attacked them with iron bars and other weapons. It released photos showing knives, slingshots, rocks, smoke bombs, iron bars, sticks, hammers, firebombs and gasmasks, which Israel said had been found onboard the vessel.

Meanwhile Erdogan announced at the weekend that, after discussions with Hamas leaders, he will visit Gaza in the coming weeks in a show of solidarity.

Hamas has been designated by the U.S. as a “foreign terrorist organization” since 1997, but Erdogan disputes that characterization.

Israel holds the Islamist group responsible for thousands of deadly terror attacks since the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993, from suicide bombings in Israeli cities to the launching of rockets from Gaza. It has also been responsible for the deaths of several American citizens, including victims in bombings in Jerusalem in the late 1990s.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow