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Israel's apology to Turkey: Nothing comes for free?

Amid increased regional fluidity, Israel yearns to reestablish Turkish support in regional affairs; hence the rationale beyond its apology for the Mavi Marmara incident

Bassem Aly , Sunday 28 Apr 2013
Obama, Netanyahu
President Barack Obama, left, listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit to the Children's Memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Israel, Friday, March 22, 2013 (Photo: AP)
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Last month, Israel finally presented a formal apology for the attack on the Mavi Marmara aid ship to Gaza that left nine Turkish activists dead in 2010.

The timing of the step raises questions, especially that Israel had incessantly repeated its refusal to apologise.

Three days ago, Ankara and Tel Aviv started talks on compensation for the families of victims, which reflects Israel's keenness on ending the three-year diplomatic spat with Turkey and paving the way to cooperation in other regional matters.

Washington’s active diplomacy

Israel and Turkey had long been close regional, military and economic partners. The break in their relations, thus, constituted a shock to other parters, particularly the United States. 

In March, US President Barack Obama succeeded in sponsoring the vital phone conversation conducted between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Obama’s efforts came amid his Middle East tour that encompassed Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, four months after his re-election for a second term.

“While it is clear that there was pressure placed on Netanyahu, it had seemed for sometime that the Israeli government was going to apologise,” Louis Fishman, a Turkey-based analyst and assistant professor in the Department of History at Brooklyn College, New York, told Ahram Online.

“With Foreign Minister [Avigdor] Lieberman resigning, and placing his position on hold in the new government, Netanyahu was able to move forward with the apology.”

The United States urged the two sides earlier this month to improve coordination and contain the spillover from the Syrian civil war and face the challenge of Iran’s nuclear programme, Reuters reported.

“Influential Israeli politicians had reached a conclusion that it was in Israel's vital interests to make up with Turkey. This point was recognised by Turkey also, therefore there was no reason for them to relinquish their demand," Fishman concluded.

Comes the Iranian factor

Israel seeks to use a Turkish airbase for military drills in the midst of a possible attack on Tehran’s nuclear sites, Israel’s The Jerusalem Post revealed in a report published 21 April.

The report, denied by Turkey, pointed out that Israeli officials will offer to sell Turkey “advanced missile and surveillance technology” in exchange for reviving the 1996 agreement between them that allowed Israel to train in Turkish airspace and use the Akinci airbase.

“Among the advanced systems [National Security Adviser Yaakov] Amidror will offer the Turks are the Arrow anti-ballistic missiles defence system, a visual intelligence system developed by Israeli defence company Elop that can create a precise image at a range of 60 miles during day or night and under any weather condition, and an advanced electronic warfare system made by Elta," the report noted.

“I doubt that it is true,” Aaron Stein, manager of the non-proliferation programme at the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, said.

Stein believes that Ankara, despite its tense ties with the Islamic Republic, is opposed to outside military intervention in Iran due to concerns on its own national security. It aims to maintain diplomacy as the main tool in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.  

NATO deployed Patriot missiles in January to “protect against spillover” from the civil war in neighbouring Syria. But Syria's allies, mainly Iran and Russia, opposed the deployment, fearing that it could spark regional conflict.

Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said that Turkey's relations with Iran have steadily worsened, mostly because of differences over Syria.

“Disagreements also were raised because of other issues, such as Turkey's introduction of anti-missile radar, Iran's hard line in nuclear negotiations, and issues concerning Iraq. Israel and Turkey are thus increasingly on the same side vis-à-vis Iran,” Fitzpatrick argued.

However, Borzou Daragahi, The Financial Times’ Middle East correspondent, claimed that Turkey would not welcome participating in any Israeli or US war against Iran, which Ankara is “very suspicious” of, in part due to its “regional ambitions.”

“Despite its mistrust of the Iranian regime, Turkey is also wary of any more instability on its borders. It has already suffered the consequences of wars in Iraq, Syria and the Caucasus," Daragahi asserted.

Gaza involved?

With no clear or declared cause, US Secretary of State John Kerry asked Erdogan to delay a visit to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip scheduled for next month.

According to AFP, Kerry told reporters in Istanbul that it would be better to delay. "We thought the timing is really critical," Kerry added, without further elaboration.

Erdogan, arguably a supporter of the Palestinian cause, announced last week that he would visit the Palestinian Strip after his visit to Washington 16 May to assist the process of ending the Israeli embargo.

Hamas accused Kerry, along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (as both met in Istanbul this month), of “collusion in a bid to maintain the Israeli blockade on Gaza."

Fitzpatrick believes Iran will be pleased if Erdogan disregards the request of Kerry.

Israel formalised its blockade on Gaza in 2006 after Hamas won legislative elections against Fatah. It was extended following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.

The blockade, lessened to an extent by the international outcry over the killing of the Turkish activists, has never been completely abandoned.  

“The Gaza visit is a minor issue, but in accordance with a zero-sum game mentality, Iran sees an embarrassment for Israel as a gain for itself," Fitzpatrick mentioned.

Yet, a “temporary embarrassment” for Israel, if it happened, would not alter the coalition of forces between Turkey and Israel, as Iran is supported only by weak states such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Fitzpatrick emphasised.

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