Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s phone call to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 22 to extend an apology for the  Mavi Marmara flotilla incident came as a surprise to the public, it was actually the end of an arduous road for senior officials who have been working on an apology. Netanyahu’s call to Erdogan in the presence of US President Barack Obama was not a coincidence; rather, it was the result of three weeks of bargaining between Washington, Tel Aviv and Ankara.
The foundation for the apology was laid in a two-hour meeting new US Secretary of State John Kerry had with Erdogan in Ankara at the beginning of March. While the public was focused on American unease with Erdogan’s “Zionism remarks,” the contacts behind closed doors focused on Turkey-Israel relations.
In response to the US secretary of state’s call for normalization, Erdogan repeated that in principle he wasn’t anti-Semitic or anti-Israel but that there would be no backing down from the Turkish demand for an apology for Mavi Marmara. Kerry then offered to mediate in the matter.
The Obama administration certainly acted, but it did not start from scratch. It simply took over the secret diplomacy that had been going on between Turkey and Israel for an apology and normalization of relations. In correspondence that Turkish Foreign Ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu had with his Israeli counterparts in 2011 and 2012, tacit agreements were reached three times, but in all three cases Netanyahu had to take a step back for political reasons. This time contacts were pursued in two channels. Kerry, relying on his longtime good standing with Ankara, and Israel took an active role in the issue. Kerry was in direct contact with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who spoke with him on the telephone six times over the previous two weeks. (In one case, while addressing a public gathering at Mersin, Davutoglu apologized to his audience to take a phone call from Kerry before continuing his talk.)
The two ministers have frequently used email to communicate about Israel’s concerns and various formulas for an apology — Davutoglu carries an iPhone, Blackberry and iPod with him. At the same time, Sinirlioglu continued his secret correspondence with his US counterpart, Phil Gordon, and senior Israeli officials on an apology formula. The most serious concern of the Israelis was putting an end to harsh criticism of Israel by Turkey and its verbal assaults. Israelis wanted true normalization in bilateral relations after an apology.
The changes in the Israeli government coalition during the bargaining process and exclusion of hawkish foreign minister Avigdor Liberman from the Cabinet gave a freer hand to Netanyahu. Netanyahu was further comforted by Obama’s presence when he extended the apology.
Another development that made it easier for Netanyahu was an interview Erdogan gave to Danish newspaper Politiken. The idea came from the US Ambassador to Ankara, Francis Ricciardone, who has been involved in the bargaining. In this interview, Erdogan softened his remarks about Zionism by underlining that the Jewish people were not enemies of Turkey. His Feb. 27 remarks on Zionism had created serious discomfort in Israel.
The final formula emerged when Davutoglu was in Poland and Prime Minister Erdogan was in the Netherlands. Kerry had called Davutoglu to convey the final formula and said he was emailing the agreed text of apology. Davutoglu — who had just arrived in Warsaw to observe the 600th year of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Poland — went into the Polish Foreign Ministry and then immediately came out. He apologized to his Polish counterpart, Radoslaw Sikorski, and after staying with him for 10 minutes went to the airport to fly back to Ankara.
Davutoglu landed in Ankara at 11:30 p.m. on Thursday night [March 21]. Fifteen minutes later Erdogan’s plane arrived from the Netherlands. Erdogan met with Davutoglu and Sinirlioglu at Esenboga Airport VIP lounge to evaluate the apology formulated by US mediation. In the meeting that followed the next morning at the prime minister’s residence, it was decided that the apology was satisfactory and the normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations at the beginning of a new era in the Middle East would be beneficial to stability in the region and for Turkish foreign policy.
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