It took many people by surprise when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish PM Erdogan on 22 March to apologise for the killing of nine Turkish nationals on board the Mavi Marmara in 2010. It appears that a deal was brokered by President Obama during his visit to Israel and the call was made from Ben Gurion Airport just before Obama left for Jordan.
The Israeli apology has been hailed as a major foreign policy success by the Turkish press and politician alike, whereas in Israel it has divided opinion. The Israeli defence forces and security services have come out in support of the move but the extreme right-wing Israeli politicians have taken the view that Israel should not have apologised. Those who do not support the apology point to the Parker report commissioned by the UN after the incident which stated that Israel had the legal right to take action. However, the same report also criticised Israeli soldiers for using excessive force. As is often the case, each side talked up those parts of the report that suited their purposes.
So, what is the deal? Turkey had made three major demands before they would agree to normalise relations: a full apology, reparations to be paid to the families of the deceased persons and the lifting of the Gaza blockade. Netanyahu’s apology for ‘operational mistakes’ has been accepted; discussions are underway to agree the amount to be paid to the families (between $100,000 and $1,000,000 per person – a joint committee will be set up to agree the amount) and Israel has agreed to review the extent of the blockade based on the circumstances on the ground. For their part, the Turkish Government has agreed not to continue with the court action against the Israel Defence Forces personnel.
Why was it important to reach a deal? What is in it for the parties involved? A lot has changed in the Middle East since the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. The so called ‘Arab Spring’ has destabilised the region; the power of the Islamists is on the increase; the uprising in Syria has been going on for more than two years; the threat from Iran and its proxies is ever present. It is easy to see why the United States wanted the relations between Israel and Turkey to be normalised. It could not allow its two closest allies in the region to be at each other’s throats. Full cooperation between Israel and Turkey benefits the West and NATO. Israel needed the relations to be normalised so that Israel, Jordan and Turkey can cooperate on a daily basis to manage their respective borders with Syria and prevent dangerous materials such as chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. Furthermore, Israeli Air force and Army had been keen to resume training in the Turkish air space and joint exercises with their Turkish counterparts in order to better prepare for any future hostilities with Iran. For its part, Turkey had grown warmer to the idea of normalising relations with Israel, having realised that hostility towards Israel had won them no new friends in the Arab world but had damaged their standing with the West. An Israeli source commented “We cannot operate in isolation in the region; we need strong regional as well as global allies”.
Since the start of the reconciliation process, Israeli defence contractors have signed new contracts, and security and defence cooperation is underway. On 24 March the Turkish media interviewed President Shimon Peres, who said “I can think of one thousand reasons why Turkey and Israel should be friends and I cannot find one reason why they shouldn’t be”. Right now, what is driving the reconciliation is practical good sense rather than love between the two sides. Netanyahu can justifiably feel that he has made the right call by putting the interests of the country ahead of political pride and posturing. Let’s hope that common sense continues to prevail on both sides so that they can work together to chart a safe course through these troubled and dangerous times for the region.
© M. Ozdamar (2013)