By Victor Kotsev
The most recent source of suspense in the Turkish-Israeli relationship is an important upcoming report by a United Nations inquiry into Israeli raid of the Turkish aid ship Mavi Marmara. The incident in international waters on May 31, 2010, left nine activists dead and over 50 people, including several Israeli soldiers, wounded.
The media intrigue, boosted by numerous leaks from politicians, is being loudly drummed up in both countries (and, to a lesser extent, in the international media), but it is important to keep in mind that both Ankara and Tel Aviv face more pressing challenges at home and abroad. The question looms large, therefore, whether or not this spat is much more than a smokescreen designed to divert attention and to serve indirectly related agendas of the two countries.
The upcoming report was originally intended to help mend Turkish-Israeli ties which have been in decline since Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-2009, and under incredible strain after the Mavi Marmara raid. However, its final draft is said to hurt both countries, and its impact to seriously endanger their ties. If Ankara and Tel Aviv can reach an understanding on their own, the report could be toned down; intensive negotiations are underway.
The sticking issue is Turkey’s demand that Israel apologizes for the raid and pays compensation to the families of the victims. Israel, which claims that its soldiers acted in self-defense, has so far balked at the idea of issuing any kind of apology, even though its government has been discussing this possibility over the last few days. Some reports claim that Israel has quietly agreed to pay compensation in the past, but that an apology remains a red line for many in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right coalition.
The four-member inquiry panel, backed by UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, includes both an Israeli and a Turkish representative, and was launched in August 2010. Its conclusions examine and draw on investigations that both countries conducted independently, and are considered more authoritative than those of a previous report, released by the United Nations Human Rights Council last September, which squarely laid blame on Israel. 
Arguably, the Turks are responsible for most of the noise surrounding the inquiry itself. Israel conducted a high-powered investigation into the incident, headed by retired Israeli Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel and including two prominent international observers. Its findings, signed also by international legal experts, were released in January. The Turkel report criticized the Israeli army for operational failures, but concluded that “the actions taken [by Israel] were found to be legal pursuant to the rules of international law.” 
Turkey reacted angrily to the Israeli report, but its own investigation into the incident was much less extensive and seemingly carried much less weight. The Recep Tayyip Erdogan administration, nevertheless, stuck to its guns. “We expect the UN investigation to be balanced so we won’t get what we want and Israel won’t get what it wants, but apology and compensation are a red line for us,” a Turkish official told Reuters in February.
By May, however, the full extent of the damage done to Turkey’s position by the Turkel report and Israeli diplomacy became visible. An alarmed Ankara threatened to pull out of the United Nations investigation, claiming a pro-Israeli bias of the draft. 
In June, after the parliamentary elections in Turkey which were won by the ruling AKP (Justice and Development) party, intensive negotiations to resolve the crisis started between the two countries. The United States played an important role behind the curtains, allegedly promising Ankara “a major role in Mideast [peace] talks” if it stopped the Turkish participants in the Freedom Flotilla movement from sailing again to Gaza this year. 
The move worked spectacularly, and for a while it seemed that the Turkish-Israeli rift was almost over (see my article Gandhians come thundering, Asia Times Online, July 8, 2011). However, the issue of the apology remained unresolved, and the upcoming report elevated it again to a crisis status.
According to information provided to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz by anonymous Israeli officials, the UN draft report justifies the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip and criticizes the actions of the Turkish government, but also accuses Israel of using disproportionate force. It does not demand an apology from Israel. 
According to leaks in the Turkish press, however, the report accuses Israel of sending its commandos “to kill”. 
Turkey remains adamant about the apology, and it has been dangling both carrots and sticks in front of the Israeli government. On the one hand stands the promise of full normalization of diplomatic, military, intelligence, and economic ties between the two countries.  On the other hand stands the threat of “diplomatic action”. 
Such measures could include a visit to Gaza by Erdogan (lending international legitimacy to Hamas), further downgrades in diplomatic representation (there has been no Turkish ambassador in Israel for over a year), and possibly international lawsuits against Israeli soldiers.
The Israeli government is holding intensive debates on its course of action. Last week, Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein advised Netanyahu to apologize, and expressed his belief that Turkey could be persuaded not to file any lawsuits against Israeli soldiers in exchange.  This has been a problematic issue so far, and some Israeli analysts have claimed that an apology might in fact make lawsuits more likely.
Hardliners in the Israeli government have been more vocal in the media about the debates, indicating that they perceive a danger that they may lose the argument. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman condemned Netanyahu for “his inclination to agree to an Israeli apology to Turkey over the deadly IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] raid on a Gaza-bound ship last year,” as a Ha’aretz report has it. 
According to other media reports, it was the Israeli officials who requested the latest postponement of the release of the UN report. It is important to see how this crisis plays out, not so much because of its intrinsic importance, but because it is indicative of the course of several larger crises in the Middle East which are gathering steam.
There is, for example, the Syrian crisis. It was a major incentive for both Israel and Turkey, which are Syria’s neighbors, to pursue a reconciliation, since it threatens to destabilize the entire region; the only way to avoid a serious spillover would be for regional powers to act together and with determination.
Syria was likely also on the mind of the United States as it pushed Jerusalem and Ankara to mend fences. The Syrian upheaval is gradually sliding toward a proxy conflict between Iran and the United States and its allies; even a possible Turkish military intervention is reportedly in the works.
The Iranian nuclear crisis is also at a critical point. The United States clearly is eager to resolve any outstanding issues between its allies in this moment.
On the other hand, however, stands Turkey’s desire for a prominent role in the Muslim world. After the fall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Ankara arguably received a boost in this ambition. Still, it is reluctant to challenge its other main competitors – Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has domestic troubles of its own, including a restive Kurdish population, and an economic crisis that is bound to be exacerbated by the problems in Syria and the rest of the Arab world.
A cheap way for Erdogan to get credit with the Arab street is to pick a fight with Israel; the more symbolic the fight, the better. The Mavi Marmara incident seems like a gold mine in this respect, and this likely explains a large part of the Turkish reticence to accept anything less than an apology.
Prominent in Israel’s calculations, on the other hand, are both the Iranian crisis and the upcoming Palestinian declaration of independence. Netanyahu has held his cards close to his chest on both issues. It remains to be seen whether he will seek to mend his international standing as much as possible prior to September, indicating that he is committed to a purely diplomatic exit from all the different crises, or if he will escalate further all fronts, gambling on the assumption that a military flare-up anywhere in the region will reshuffle all the cards and make an apology superfluous.
It could be that Netanyahu ends up being unable to twist the arms of his unruly right-wing coalition partners into agreeing to an apology. It could also be that a military flare-up, in Syria, Iran, Lebanon or Gaza, is imminent.
While the current crisis between Israel and Turkey is hardly significant in the long run in and of itself, it could provide important clues to these questions.
1. UN’s Gaza flotilla probe finds Israeli soldiers committed ‘willful killing’, The Christian Science Monitor, 23 September 2010
2. Israel Flotilla Raid Was Legal, Turkel Commission Report States, Huffington Post, 23 January 2011
3. Report: Turkey threatens to leave UN Gaza flotilla inquiry panel over ‘Israel-favored’ draft, Ha’aretz, 14 May 2011
4. Report: US to offer Turkey major role in Mideast talks if it stops Gaza flotilla, Ha’aretz, 3 June 2011
5. UN report: Gaza blockade legal, Israel doesn’t owe Turkey apology for Marmara, Ha’aretz, 7 July 2011
6. Report: UN panel rules IDF boarded Marmara ‘to kill’, ynetnews.com 24 July 2011
7. Turkey set on fully mending ties with Israel, says Erdogan’s aide, Ha’aretz, 21 July 2011
8. Turkey threatens diplomatic action pending Israel apology for Gaza flotilla raid, Ha’aretz, 25 July 2011
9. AG to Netanyahu: Apologize to Turkey or face indictments for IDF troops, Ha’aretz, 21 July 2011
10. Lieberman deplores Netanyahu for leaning toward apology to Turkey, Ha’aretz, 21 July 2011
Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.
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