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As UN Gaza flotilla inquiry opens, a chance for improved Turkey-Israel relations?

The UN inquiry into Israel's Gaza flotilla raid, which left 8 Turks and one Turkish-American dead, opens today. Analysts say incentives are strong for both Turkey and Israel to repair their tattered alliance.

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Some in Israel are seeking a broader mandate for the UN inquiry, including an examination of the Turkish NGO behind the flotilla – which some Israelis allege has militant links – and the necessity of Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, which Israel says is needed to prevent Hamas from receiving weapons.

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The Turkish government, which is under domestic pressure to display its achievements before a Sept. 12 referendum, is likely to press for an apology and demand compensation.

“If it’s money, it’s not so hard. We have money,” says Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat in Turkey who helped negotiate compensation for Turkish victims during Israel’s war with Lebanon in the 1980s. “But when it’s honor, that’s much harder.”

Turkey has also asked that the panel report directly to the UN Security Council, whose rotating presidency Turkey will assume in September.

The UN inquiry will be chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and Alvaro Uribe, who just stepped down as Colombia’s president. Mr. Uribe’s addition as vice chair was seen by many as crucial to Israel’s agreement to join the panel.

Uribe knows well the kind of criticism Israel faces for fighting militant groups. In fact, after one of the many raids Uribe’s Colombia made in its successful fight against the narcotrafficking guerrilla group known as FARC, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez shunned it as the “Israel of Latin America.”

Mr. Palmer and Uribe will be joined on the four-member panel by Ozdem Sanberk of Turkey and Israeli representative Joseph Ciechanover, Ban announced over the weekend. Mr. Sanberk is a veteran diplomat with extensive experience at Turkey’s foreign ministry and the United Nations. Mr. Ciechanover, the former chairman of the board of El Al airlines, previously served as general counsel to Israel’s defense ministry and director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry.

But both sides appear committed to arresting the acute slide in Israel-Turkish relations brought on by the raid, and repairing Israel’s most important regional alliance.

The Israeli-Turkish alliance

The alliance has benefited both countries over the years and has also been seen as crucial to regional stability by a key regional player: the United States, an ally of both Turkey and Israel.