Turkey-Israel ties fall to new low in response to UN flotilla report

Turkey expelled Israel's ambassador today in protest over a UN report that justified Israel's blockade of Gaza, though not the fatal raid on a mainly Turkish flotilla that sought to run it.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu speaks to the media in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, Sept. 2. Turkey said Friday it was expelling the Israeli ambassador and cutting military ties with Israel over the last year's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, further souring the key Mideast relationship between Turkey and Israel.

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Turkey-Israel relations dipped to a new low today over a long-awaited United Nations report on the Gaza flotilla debacle, freezing a key regional alliance despite more than a year of attempts to resuscitate ties.

Turkey announced today that it is expelling Israel's ambassador and suspending all joint military agreements after failing to secure a formal apology from Israel for the deaths of eight Turks and one Turkish-American on May 31, 2010, when Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, the flagship of the flotilla.

The convoy of ships had been seeking to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, which Israel said was necessary to prevent the Islamist militant group Hamas from obtaining weapons but which many in the international community had objected to on humanitarian grounds.

The UN report, due to be formally released today but leaked yesterday by The New York Times, surprised many by declaring Israel's blockade of Gaza as legal. While it criticized Israeli commandos for using "excessive and unreasonable" force in halting the mainly Turkish flotilla, it requested merely that Israel "express regret" for the deaths and pay unspecified reparations to the families, the Times reported.

“Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza,” the report says in its opening paragraphs. “The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law.”

Turkey is particularly upset by the conclusion that Israel’s naval blockade is in keeping with international law and that its forces have the right to stop Gaza-bound ships in international waters, which is what happened in the 2010 episode. That conclusion oversteps the mandate of the four-member panel appointed by the United Nations secretary general and is at odds with other United Nations decisions, Turkey argued.

Turkey and Israel had developed strong ties over the past two decades, with trade worth $3 billion a year and significant military cooperation. But the 2009 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas drew condemnation from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sparking a deterioration of relations on numerous fronts.

Immediately after Israel's fatal flotilla raid, Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel. Prior to yesterday's report in the Times, Mr. Davutoglu said that if Israel did not apologize for its attack on the ship, which left nine dead (eight of them Turkish citizens), Turkey would downgrade its diplomatic ties with Israel, stand against it in international forums, and possibly sever economic ties, the Jerusalem Post reports.

A commentary piece in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz questioned the timing of the announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week that it would not apologize, arguing that it would have been better to rely on the public findings of the report.

But the Associated Press reveals suspicion in Jerusalem about Turkey's motives that have hardened Israel's position.

A senior Israeli government official who had seen the report told the AP earlier this week that Israel has come to believe that Turkey is intent on worsening ties with Israel in order to bolster its own position in the Arab and Islamic world. While Israel does not rule out quiet talks with Turkey on an expression of regret and reparations to families of the dead activists, the report does not ask for an Israeli apology and there will not be one, he said.

In an OpEd in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News, Barcin Yinanc writes that while Israel may have thought that time would quell Turkey's anger over the attack on its ship, Turkey is now pursuing a "plan B" against Israel that will result in a further deterioration of relations.

First of all, working on a plan B, in the absence of an apology, means Turkey is not willing to have the present situation with Israel to continue like that. Time is not going to heal the wounds between the two countries. Time will not make Turkey step down from its position, and Turkey is not going to play for time, in the expectation that “in time” Israel will come to the point of apology.

So, if some in the Israeli cabinet believe that by avoiding an apology the worse outcome will be the continuation of the current state of affairs, and – despite its disadvantages – it is a bearable cost; well Turkey is saying: “This is not the case.” With plan B, Turkey is saying that avoiding an apology will have a cost for Israel.

Israel no longer has to worry about losing an ally because it has already done that, Ms. Yinanc writes: "For Israel the stakes are no longer about losing a valuable friend, but it is about gaining a new opponent."

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan now says that in order for Turkey to restore its ambassador to Israel, the Jewish state must not only apologize and pay reparations, but end its naval blockade on Gaza.

That is unlikely, given the UN's backing of Israel's position in its so-called Palmer report, due to be formally released today. The special UN panel that produced the report was led by New Zealander Geoffrey Palmer with former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Joseph Ciechanover Itzhar served as a representative for Israel, while Süleyman Özdem Sanberk represented Turkey's interests on the panel.

The panel concluded that neither Turkey nor Israel intended the sad results of the flotilla, reports the Jerusalem Post.

The Palmer report wrote that the flotilla "acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade. The majority of the flotilla participants had no violent intentions, but there exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH. The actions of the flotilla needlessly carried the potential for escalation," the Post wrote.

Both states took steps in an attempt to ensure that events did not occur in a manner that endangered individuals’ lives and international peace and security. Turkish officials also approached the organizers of the flotilla with the intention of persuading them to change course if necessary and avoid an encounter with Israeli forces. But more could have been done to warn the flotilla participants of the potential risks involved and to dissuade them from their actions.

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