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Israel Apologizes; Turkey Steps Back

Kadri Gursel writes that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's acceptance of the Israeli apology, although a positive development, is more important than the actual apology.
Pedestrians look at billboards with the pictures of Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu (L), in Ankara March 25, 2013. Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday an Israeli apology for the 2010 deaths of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists that was brokered by U.S. President Barack Obama met Turkey's conditions and signalled its growing regional clout. The billboard reads, "Israel apologized to Turkey. Dear Prime Minister (Erdogan), We ar

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan [on March 22]  to declare that his country is apologizing to Turkish people for the mistakes during the 2010 flotilla affair, that Israel has accepted to pay compensation to victims' relatives and even has agreed to soften the Gaza blockade is an important development.

But for the apology in this format to be accepted by Erdogan is even more important and a positive development.

In the incident that became the subject of compensation and apology, the Israeli military launched an operation on the Mavi Marmara while it was in international waters. Mavi Marmara was the flag ship of the flotilla assembled to attract the world’s attention to the naval blockade Israel had imposed on Gaza. Nine Turkish activists, eight of them Turkish citizens, were killed in the Israeli operation.

Secret contacts to discuss apology and compensation preconditions Turkey required to normalize bilateral relations between Turkey and Israel followed. In June 2011, a draft of an agreement reflecting comprehensive accords were formulated but because of the opposition of the former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman the secret diplomatic contacts remained futile. This is when Turkey  upped its preconditions from two to three by adding lifting of the blockade and embargos on Gaza.

Israel must have gone through some changes that enabled Netanyahu to apologize now. The first change is Lieberman's exclusion from the new Israeli collation government that was formed on March 18. Lieberman had adamantly opposed an apology and compensation and had succeeded in blocking initiatives for reconciliation. He is now trying to do the same from outside the government.

The second key change in Israeli leaders must have been in their perceptions of AKP Turkey. Israel was inclined to apologize and pay compensation for some time now. What was preventing was Israel’s justifiable fear that there would not be true normalization in relations with Turkey despite heavy political and moral costs it would have to pay for an apology and compensation.

Since 2009, “anti-Israelism” has become increasingly eminent feature of Turkey's political culture and it was normal for Israel to be unsure whether this negative trend could be reversed by an apology and compensation. Israeli leaders must now have concluded that normalization is feasible.

Or, a more current issue, for example, the desire to cooperate with Turkey against a growing Syria risk, must have surpassed their fear of non-likelihood of a desired level of normalization with Turkey at political cost of an apology.

Or, both.

We do note an interesting result when we compare Israel’s changing attitude regarding the flotilla affair with that of Turkey's. Change in Turkey’s attitude is more dramatic and grander than that of Israel.

Israel after all did not change its known position on apology and compensation but Turkey did. Ankara reduced its three conditions for normalization to almost one and a half and diluted its position considerably.

Let us elaborate:  Ankara has significantly softened its position on the first precondition of”apology” by making it almost a "half-precondition." As to Ankara’s third precondition of lifting the embargo and blockade on Gaza that was added later on now appears to be totally forgotten.

Let’s start with the apology: On June 18-19, 2011, in the agreement drafted jointly by Turkey and Israel the word “apology” was used as Turkey demanded, and not “regret.”  According to a retired senior diplomat who was involved in the negotiations, the agreement was “95%” done. The only point in the draft objected to by Turkish negotiators was the lead paragraph of the draft that said “death and injuries were not premeditated.” Turkey was saying exactly the opposite — activitists were killed intentionally by Israeli soldiers.

If negotiations with Israel had continued in the context of this draft document, Turkey would have tried to change the wording that deaths were caused by operational mistakes and  come up with a document that was mutually acceptable.

But on March 22 when Erdogan and Netanyahu talked on the phone, Turkey accepted Israel’s apology and agreed with the Israeli view that the deaths were caused by operational mistakes of the Israeli military.

A key point is not the usage of the word “”apology” but what that apology covers. The apology we have now is that the losses of life resulted not from premeditation or intentionally but because of errors made.

Reading the statement issued by Erdogan’s office after the phone conversation, it's impossible to think otherwise. The statement explains what the apology was for: “Mr. Netanyahu, in the light of the investigation of the incident and concluding that it was because if series if operational mistakes, has apologized to Turkish people on behalf of people of Israel for any mistake that led to loss of life or injuries. Our prime minister has accepted the said apology on behalf of Turkish people.”

The result: Ankara gave up its persistence for an apology for intentional killing and thus took a constructive step back.

Now let’s have a look at Turkey’s making the lifting of the Gaza blockade and embargo as the third condition of normalization with Israel.

It was a major strategic mistake by Turkey to mortgage its relations with Israel to the progress in multilateral, complex issue of Gaza where Turkey’s influence is considerably limited. No doubt Ankara obtained the luxury of making this mistake by the asymmetry in the nature of its relations with Israel.

It is true that Israel has never thought of its security can be sacrificed for the sake of normal relations with “important country Turkey.” That is still the case today.

We now see that AKP’s Turkey has now abandoned the precondition of ”lifting the Gaza embargo and blockade” which had to be seen as the most crucial element of the “”cold war” format Ankara had decided to apply in relations with Israel.  The Gaza blockade that actually led to the flotilla affair is still there, unchanged. Neither the statement from Netanyahu’s office or from Erdogan’s office made any mention of a naval blockade.

So, the blockade is removed from the equation.

The embargo imposed on land borders have been softened because of relative improvement of the situation from Israeli perspective. In Netanyahu’s statement it is said the embargos will be relaxed to the extent of continuation of the calm. In that case, the tightening up of the embargo is also possible should calm not prevail.  The course of the embargo depends on the situation in Gaza, independent of Turkish pressure.

Of course, the effective pressure on Israel and Turkey exerted by the Obama administration to reconcile two U.S. allies played an important part.

But we should not discard the possibility that Turkey had decided to remove its relations with Israel from its ”cold war” format in current circumstances of the Middle East. We must nevertheless very careful because since 2009 perceptions of Israel in Turkey have been disproportionately and negatively conditioned by the 2009 Davos affair.

Kadri Gürsel is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and has written a column for the Turkish daily Milliyet since 2007. He focuses primarily on Turkish foreign policy, international affairs and Turkey’s Kurdish question, as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam.

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