June 27, 2016
Prime Ministers Yıldırım and Netanyahu personally announced to the world that Turkey and Israel have decided to restore diplomatic relations. This is concrete evidence that even for the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) “precious loneliness” was no longer sustainable. To a certain extent the same goes for Israel, increasingly at odds with the US and the EU over the Palestinian issue. It seems that economic considerations, particularly prospects of cooperation in the energy sector have also played their part. Regardless, Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is a positive development not only for the two countries but also the Middle East in turmoil. During his press conference, PM Yıldırım avoided bravado; he was not triumphant and this too is welcome change.
First, a brief look at what happened six years ago:
A Turkish NGO organized a flotilla to take humanitarian assistance to Gaza in defiance of the Israeli maritime blockade. Israel warned them that it would not allow this, but the organizers were determined. The Turkish Government chose to let the initiative run its course. On May 31, 2010, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) boarded the flagship of the flotilla, “Mavi Marmara” and killed nine Turks. Diplomatic representation was brought to the lowest level. There was a dramatic drop in the numbers of Israeli tourists coming to Turkey. Bilateral trade volume, however, remained unaffected.
The issue was taken up by the UN at two different levels.
The UN Human Rights Council based in Geneva endorsed a report prepared by the fact-finding mission it had established upon the incident. The report qualified the Gaza blockade as well as IDF’s assault on “Mavi Marmara” as unlawful. The assault, according to the report, violated international law including international humanitarian law and the losses had to be compensated. However, paragraph 80 of the report also stated the following:
“… Whilst the Mission is satisfied that the flotilla constituted a serious attempt to bring essential humanitarian supplies into Gaza, it seems clear that the primary objective was political, as indeed demonstrated by the decision of those on board the Rachel Corrie to reject a Government of Ireland-sponsored proposal that the cargo in that ship to be allowed through Ashdod intact.”
The work of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Inquiry”, also referred to as the Palmer Commission since it was led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, yielded a somewhat different result. The report of the Panel said that the Gaza blockade was lawful. It found the flotilla’s action irresponsible but qualified Israeli reaction as extreme. It called for reconciliation between the two countries and advised Israel to make an appropriate statement of regret and pay compensation to the families of the victims and the injured.
Thus, there were two reports. The first appeared to please Turkey and the second Israel because of diametrically opposed opinions on the Gaza blockade.
Turkey then made it clear that any improvement in relations with Israel would depend on:
•A formal apology,
• Compensation for the victims, and
• The lifting of the Gaza blockade.
On 20 March 2013 President Obama visited Israel. While there, he called PM Erdogan and the call enabled PM Netanyahu to talk to his Turkish counterpart. It was said that during the conversation Mr. Netanyahu offered an “apology” which Mr. Erdogan accepted. For some, the apology was a diplomatic success for Turkey. Others disagreed. They held the view that the apology did not meet the criteria previously set. Nonetheless, the first condition was thus met.
All along, it was clear that compensation for the families of victims did not constitute a problem. Israel must have agreed to the principle in the earliest stage of the negotiations. Thus, a sum of 20 million dollars will be paid to the families of those killed during the IDF raid.
As for underlying issue, the Gaza blockade, the parties have found middle ground. The maritime blockade is not lifted but Turkey will have the possibility of delivering humanitarian aid and other non-military material to Gaza through Israeli ports, and engage in infrastructure investments in the area to improve the living standards of Palestinians. Concrete steps will be taken to address the energy and water problems. In his announcement, PM Yıldırım notably mentioned the “easing of the embargo” and he was right.
Insofar as the delivery of supplies to Gaza is concerned, PM Netanyahu mentioned Ashdod. The same port, Ashdod, had also been mentioned in paragraph 80 of the UN Human Rights Council report. So, one is entitled to ask: Why today’s solution was not worked out then? Why were relations ruptured for six years? Why such a high diplomatic/political price had to be paid? The simple answer is that ambition, bravado and defiance prevailed over reason, leading to a tragedy.
Hamas, both sides have underlined, is not referred to in the agreement. It is impossible to imagine that it was not taken up during the negotiations and that even a rudimentary understanding was not reached. There could also be other unwritten commitments.
The agreement is essentially about the restoration of diplomatic relations and the Gaza blockade, the latter being the main source of controversy. It goes without saying that the agreement opens the door for more. This, however, may take time. The primary obstacle to genuine improvement in relations remains the overarching question of chemistry. Israel will continue to look at the JDP with suspicion because of its ideology, support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. The JDP would probably wish to avoid new crises but remain critical of PM Netanyahu’s approach to the Palestinian question. Hopefully, both parties have learnt their lesson and will act with restraint when differences emerge. Joint economic projects may help improve the relationship.
As Turkish-Israeli agreement was announced, the Kremlin said that President Erdogan had sent a written message to President Putin apologizing for the downing of Russian Su-24 and expressing a desire to restore relations. It seems that Ankara intends take the opportunity created by Turkish-Israeli reconciliation to put this unfortunate episode behind also. The message has already started to another “apology” debate in Turkey: Is this an “apology” or an “expression of regret”? So one needs to wait for Moscow’s official reaction. Moreover, Russia has set two other conditions for reconciliation: compensation and the punishment of those responsible…
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