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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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It was perhaps those broader benefits that brought both sides back from the brink. When Turkish officials visited Washington soon after the flotilla incident, “the atmosphere … was not the most cordial,” says Suat Kiniklioglu, a senior member of the ruling Justice and Development Party who was part of the delegation.

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Even President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a sworn enemy of Israel, suggested that repairing ties might be in everyone’s best interest. Failing to do so would “without doubt affect the stability in the region,” he said.

Turkey has long been Israel’s best Muslim friend in a hostile neighborhood. Over the past 15 years, the duo has established strong military cooperation and trade ties worth $3 billion.

Turkey, the successor of an empire that once spanned three continents, has of late sought to recapture regional stature as a mediator.

But Turkey has become increasingly frustrated with Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians, particularly the 2009 offensive in Gaza. The last straw was Israel’s raid on the Turkish flagship of a ‘Freedom Flotilla’ seeking to challenge the three-year Israeli blockade of the impoverished territory.

A 'massacre'?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it a massacre that “deserves every kind of curse.” That harsh rhetoric, coupled with Turkey’s decision to recall its ambassador to Israel indefinitely, led some to speculate that the Islamic-rooted government was forsaking the mediator role it had so carefully carved out – perhaps to boost its standing at home.

“I think Turkey really mismanaged things after the flotilla,” says Soli Ozel, an international relations instructor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “They overreached. If you want to play in the big leagues, you’ve got to be able to contain your temper. You don’t make your foreign policy hostage to your domestic politics.”

But Turkey now appears eager to demonstrate to its allies, both in the West and the Muslim world, that it remains a trustworthy arbiter.

“Turkey wants to prove that there is no axis shift in its foreign policy. The prime reason for Turkey supporting the commission is this,” says Mansur Akgun of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an Istanbul-based think tank. “Turkey also wants to have a stable environment around it and it’s not possible to solve the problems of the region without good relations with Israel.”

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