Mar 22, 2013 | 19:43 GMT

5 mins read

Next Steps After Israel's Flotilla Apology

Next Steps After Israel's Flotilla Apology
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

The seemingly rushed circumstances in which the United States secured an Israeli apology to Turkey and the Turkish government's restrained response raises questions about how far Turkey intends to carry its purported renewal of diplomatic ties with Israel.

Multiple reports have appeared saying that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010 and that Israel has agreed to pay compensation for the families of the victims. The apology reportedly was made in a phone call between the two leaders that was initiated by U.S. President Barack Obama.

It first became clear that something was developing when Israeli media reported that Obama and Netanyahu held much longer talks than expected on the morning of March 22; Obama was very late for his scheduled visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. When Obama arrived back at Ben Gurion Airport to board Air Force One for a trip to Jordan, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Netanyahu and Obama held an unexpected lunch meeting, during which Obama reportedly initiated the phone call between Erdogan and Netanyahu. A few minutes before Obama boarded Air Force One to depart for Amman, the White House released a short statement that said Obama "welcomed the call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Prime Minister Erdogan" and that he hoped it would be the beginning of "deeper cooperation" on regional peace and security.

The prime minister's office in Israel then released a statement that said Netanyahu had apologized to Erdogan for the flotilla incident and that he had agreed to compensate the families of the victims. It also said the two men had agreed to "restore normalization between Israel and Turkey, including the dispatch of ambassadors and the cancellation of legal steps against Israeli soldiers."

Notably, this statement, quoted by both Middle Eastern news site Independent Media Review Analysis and The Wall Street Journal, differs from what the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted on its website in English as Netanyahu's official statement. In that version of the statement, the line on the exchange of ambassadors and cancellation of legal steps against Israel Defense Forces soldiers was omitted. The Israeli Foreign Ministry website in Hebrew so far does not contain any statement on the apology.

The prime minister's office in Turkey also released a statement, though it was far more measured. According to Hurriyet, Erdogan's statement merely stated that Erdogan has accepted Netanyahu's apology and that some restrictive measures aimed at the Gaza Strip would be lifted today and remain lifted as long as the situation there remained stable.

Shaping the Story

Besides these official statements, various reports in the media are attempting to shape the story according to their interests. Turkish state-owned Anatolia news agency claimed that "Israel's embargo of Gaza has been lifted," implying that Erdogan's demands on the embargo were fulfilled. Meanwhile, Israeli media organizations are claiming Erdogan had asked Netanyahu to lift the Gaza blockade but that Netanyahu refused. So far, there are no tangible indications that Israel has lifted restrictions to Gaza border crossings. In fact, Israel actually closed the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza and partially closed the Erez crossing after rockets landed in Israel on March 21; new Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said those crossings would remain closed until security considerations were addressed.

It is unclear how much coordination among Israel, Turkey and the United States took place prior to the apology announcement. The content and manner in which the statements rolled out did not give the impression that this was a carefully crafted diplomatic unveiling in which each side had its statements prepared in advance. There were factions in both the Israeli and Turkish government pushing for a diplomatic mending of relations but little indication that a breakthrough was imminent. Embattled former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was one of the biggest obstacles on the Israeli side while Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was the major block on the Turkish side. Davutoglu preferred instead to capitalize on Turkey's hostile relationship with Israel as a way to boost the country's credibility in the Islamic world. If cooperation needed to take place between the two countries on a strategic or tactical level, it could be done quietly.

This may explain why the Turkish response to the apology appears to be both reactive and restrained. Turkey likely has limits on how far it wants to go with this diplomatic warming of relations in order to protect its image in the region as willing to stand up to Israel. At the same time, Erdogan will likely use this apology to show that Turkey can get results by maintaining a firm stance. Even when Erdogan made a statement to a Danish newspaper March 20 to clarify his earlier controversial comment that likened Zionism to a crime against humanity, he said he stood by his earlier statement, even if it was misunderstood, and would continue criticizing Israeli policies, especially over Gaza and the settlements. It remains to be seen what the United States will do for both Turkey and Israel to move their relationship forward, but Turkey will likely need further convincing if a more meaningful rapprochement is to take place.

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