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Food for Thought


Turkey Is Losing Hope of a Rapport with Israel - Ozdem Sanberk

Can Turkey and Israel be friends? It is a question that will affect the future of the entire Middle East. For many years they were close allies but in the past four years there has been a downward slide. Although Israelis blame the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for the best part of a decade he kept relations with Israel on a normal working basis. What exacerbated the downturn was the brutality shown by Israeli troops in Gaza in January 2009. Then came a calculated televised humiliation of Turkeyʼs ambassador in Tel Aviv a year ago. Then, to crown it all, on May 31 last year the Israeli Defence Forces attacked a flotilla of vessels carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza - whose cargo had been previously checked by the Turkish authorities - killing nine people on board and wounding many others. This was despite last-minute appeals from Turkey to Israel for moderation.

The two countries, which ought to be friends, are now deeply estranged. The publication of Israelʼs official defence of its actions before a United Nations panel is happening in a fashion more likely to open new wounds than heal the breach.

On the day of the killings, Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, called for a "credible, impartial, transparent inquiry, conforming to international standards". What emerged from discussions, by agreement between Turkey and Israel, was a UN panel, chaired by the respected international lawyer Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the former New Zealand prime minister, with Alvaro Uribe, the former president of Colombia, as its deputy.

The other two members were Yosef Ciechanover, formerly a senior official from the Israeli foreign ministry, and me. The role of the panel was not to allocate blame or negotiate a settlement but to establish what happened. The governments of Turkey and Israel were expected to submit reports on their version of events by September. Turkey did so and Israel was expected to follow soon after. In the interim Turkey was told it must keep its report confidential pending the appearance of the Israeli report. This, however, did not happen as swiftly as expected.

Nearly eight months after the tragedy of May 31 2010, Israel has finally produced its account. Unlike the Turkish report, which was kept confidential but made available to Israel, we had no access to Israelʼs report before it was published.

Because of the restrictions on publishing the Turkish report, and also on taking evidence from witnesses, many of the key facts about the events - for example, the injuries and ill treatment of people on board the humanitarian aid flotilla - received little or no attention, while errors, such as claims that the peace activists carried fire arms, have circulated. The UN panel is due to meet for a final session in February. Its success is important. It is clearly necessary to establish what happened. Innocent lives of unarmed civilians were lost on the normally peaceful waters of the Mediterranean. There is a need to establish the legality or otherwise of one nation storming vessels from several other countries on a humanitarian mission. If Israelʼs actions in international waters are upheld, this could have far-reaching implications for the international law of the sea.

Also there is a need to try to repair relations between Turkey and Israel. In Ankara there is an eagerness to normalise relations with Israel, though not at the cost of turning a blind eye to the deaths. An apology for the killings, along with compensation for the dead and injured, would create the basis for a fresh start in relations. However, one of the Israelisʼ main concerns is clearly the possibility that either the Israeli authorities or individual members of the Israeli Defence Forces might face international prosecution.

Talks were held with Israel last autumn behind closed doors to design an agreement. The outlines of a deal were worked out. At the crucial moment, Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, dashed these hopes saying that there could be no apology for the killings or compensation.

Handling the situation this way may have dealt Turkish-Israeli relations another blow. An opportunity to repair a once close friendship with a compromise may slip away.

The writer is a former undersecretary of the Turkish foreign ministry and a member of the UN panel of inquiry into the deaths on the Gaza flotilla.