‘Sorry’ says Israel’s Netanyahu, opening way for diplomatic relations with Turkey

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 22, 2013 

— Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized Friday to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ending a nearly three-year-long feud in a phone call brokered by President Barack Obama.

Obama said that "the timing was right" for Israel and Turkey to begin repairing diplomatic relations, which were frozen when Israeli naval commandos raided a Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, that was attempting to break an Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip; nine Turkish nationals on board were killed.

Netanyahu apologized for the raid Friday, admitting that there had been "operational failures" and offering compensation for those killed. Israeli officials said the phone conversation had lasted 10 minutes, and by its end the two leaders had agreed to begin normalizing diplomatic relations. Just four years ago, Turkey was considered one of Israel’s closest allies in the region. The two countries staged regular joint military training exercises and had an open line of communication among the various divisions of their armed forces. Israeli pilots trained in Turkish skies, improving their capability to carry out long-range missions such as possible strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Regional political analysts said the reconciliation was a win-win situation for all the parties involved.

For Obama, the surprise diplomatic coup capped off a visit to Israel that has been lauded as a home run by Israeli officials who feel the president has won over the skeptical Israeli public and showed that he can have a positive working relationship with the Israeli government. Netanyahu, in turn, can tell his intelligence and military echelons to resume lucrative arms deals with Turkey and the sharing of information vis a vis Iran, while Erdogan can boast that he forced an apology out of the Israeli premier.

In a statement, Obama welcomed the call, saying, "The United States deeply values our relationships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them, in order to advance regional peace and security.”

Erdogan’s office announced the Israeli apology. "Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apologized to the Turkish nation for all errors that caused loss of life and injuries, and the Turkish prime minister accepted this apology on behalf of the Turkish nation," the press release said. It quoted Netanyahu as telling the Turkish premier that Israel has lifted restrictions on the entrance of goods for civilians’ use to Palestinian territories including Gaza.

In a press background briefing, a senior White House administration official explained that improving regional relations and regional cooperation had been behind the push to repair the relationship between the two countries.

"You know the expression the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Well, that explains why Israel and Turkey have decided to rekindle their friendship," said one senior Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue. "They have a lot of mutual problems that will be easier to work on together than separately."

The official, who said he was briefed Friday morning on the possibility that Netanyahu could make a call to Erdogan, added that "the call probably wouldn’t have happened if Obama hadn’t pushed, even though both sides knew it should happen."

Dan Arbell, a scholar of Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, wrote in December of small signs that Turkey and Israel might finally be moving toward a rapprochement.

Turkey, he wrote, had tired of watching the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt “take center stage” in orchestrating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and felt marginalized on the most recent negotiations on Gaza. In addition, Arbell added, as the Syrian crisis encroaches on Turkey’s borders, the Erdogan administration would seek improved intelligence cooperation with Israel.

“Turkey’s recent moves can be attributed to a growing realization that it has hurt its interests and hampered its diplomatic efforts by not maintaining dialogue and open channels with Israel,” Arbell wrote.

In recent months, Israeli officials have expressed increased concern that the ongoing civil war in Syria could spill out onto Israel’s borders, and that the vast weapons stockpiles – including chemical weapons and anti-aircraft systems – could make their way into the hands of hard-line Islamist movements. Turkey shares similar concerns, especially as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have sought refuge in southern Turkey and used the border between the two countries to plan attacks and move weapons into the hands of opposition forces fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Israeli officials have pushed, in the past, for a contingency plan to be formed that would secure not just Syria’s chemical weapons, but also other weapons systems.

"Israel does not want to see a situation like that which happened in Libya when (former Libyan leader Moammar) Gadhafi fell, when the weapons went to the highest bidder. They do not want a free for all," said retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog.

In addition to Obama’s efforts, Secretary of State John Kerry spent his first month in office also trying to nudge the two U.S. allies toward rapprochement, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters at a State Department briefing Friday. She said U.S. officials had hoped the meeting would be the site of such a move and were “gratified” that the reconciliation had occurred.

However, Nuland didn’t have a ready answer on the reasons for the timing or other underlying reasons for Israel’s apology three years after the deadly incident.

Political analysts floated several competing theories on their Twitter accounts, blogs and online policy journals: Was it necessary so that Israel could enlist Turkish support for any potential action against Iran over its outlaw nuclear program? Was it to strengthen ties between two of Syria’s neighbors who are equally concerned with the bloodshed spilling across borders and further inflaming an already precarious region? Then there were the even more nuanced hypotheses. Was it to entice Turkey back toward the European fold as new Islamist-led Arab governments court Erdogan’s administration? Or maybe it was so that Turkey would stop opposing joint NATO-Israel exercises?

Meanwhile, cynical Arab observers issued tongue-in-cheek congratulations to Obama via Twitter, commending him for brokering a peace agreement in Israel that had nothing to do with the Palestinians. They also criticized Turkey for accepting the apology when Israel’s blockade of Gaza is still in effect.

“So it appears that Obama was in Israel to push for peace efforts between Israel and Turkey – not Palestine!” tweeted the London-based Iraqi journalist and commentator Mina al Oraibi.

Frenkel reported from Jerusalem, Gutman from Istanbul and Allam from Washington.

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