The price of an Israeli apology

How much is it worth for Israel to extend an official apology to the Turkish nation for the killing of eight of its citizens and one US citizen of Turkish origin in international waters. One would think that would be a bargain for the Jewish state considering the strong relations the two nations have built over the last two decades. For one, relations with regional powerhouse Turkey, its only Muslim ally in a hostile neighborhood, have benefited Israel in recent years more than they have Turkey.

Yet we do not see a substantive effort on the part of Tel Aviv to mend ties nor do we notice any indication that the Israeli-motivated worldwide smear campaign labeling the activists aboard the flotilla as radical terrorists with links to al-Qaeda will subside any time soon. That will rebound on Israel in the long run, however, by alienating the Turkish public more than ever and thereby weakening the structural base for possible stable relations later on.

When I talk to diplomats and government officials here in Ankara, I get the feeling that they really want to move forward and put the violent incident of May 31 behind them. They realize that once relations had taken a real turn for the worse, it was going be difficult to reverse the path or to repair the serious damage it will likely incur. They have been careful in mapping out a response strategy and evaluating overall agreements as there will be legal, political and economic repercussions because of the damaged ties for both countries.

But the key to unlocking the door to stable relations is currently held by the Israeli government. They should work with Ankara by offer substantive steps, starting with an apology. We have already seen how positive Turkey was when the United Nations secured Israel’s consent for the delivery of the aid seized by the Israeli navy. The Foreign Ministry statement called the development positive. “The fact that the humanitarian aid material on the ships taking part in the Gaza aid convoy will be distributed to Gaza by the UN with the consent of all parties is considered a positive development in regard to allowing the aid project to achieve its goal,” the written statement said.

Now the issue is focused on the return of three Turkish ships to their rightful owners once the aid cargo has been unloaded. That would be another positive development. My sources tell me that the Israelis are working with Turks on this one already. There is, of course, an issue of compensation and the return of personal belongings to the activists who were part of the Gaza flotilla. Israel has yet to return all the personal belongings like cameras, personal computers and other items confiscated during the raid. There are reports that some Israeli soldiers used confiscated credit cards to go on shopping sprees as the monthly statements of victims have shown. There should be restitution for these claims.

Unless these confidence-building measures are adopted by Israel, it will be almost impossible to keep existing agreements in place no matter how beneficial some of these contracts are for Turkey. The Defense Industry Implementation Committee (SSİK) has already shelved 16 bilateral agreements due to Israel’s refusal to apologize for the killings or pay compensation. Contacts at a high governmental level have been suspended, and working projects in the preliminary planning stages in other ministries and agencies have been frozen. The damage has not yet spilled over to existing contracts, but the government has finished assessing the legal and financial implications of possible cancellations.

Now it is up to the political leadership to decide whether to pursue that possibly irreversible path. But my understanding from the conversations I have had is that the government is not in haste to act on these contingencies and may opt to give the Israeli side a way out before applying crippling sanctions. Israel should capitalize on that opening and restore relations with Turkey in order to avoid increased isolation in the region. Tel Aviv should also realize that an internal commission to investigate the raid would not work to deflect the growing anger in world public opinion and that it really should send a member to a UN investigatory commission being formed to look into the deadly raid.

Most importantly, everybody recognizes that the easing of the siege on Gaza recently was an important but not a sufficient step, and Israel should find another way to address its security concerns as the Gazans’ plight continues to inflame public outrage against Israel, putting governments around the world under increased pressure.

Not only do Turkey and Israel value the relationship that took some time to build, but the US and the EU are also keen to see both countries maintain stable and fruitful relations in this fragile region. I think it is overdue for Israel to take the “plea bargain” here and offer an official apology to the Turkish government for the loss of civilian life. That would certainly boost the hopes of a recovery of good relations between the two countries. The price, otherwise, will be very hard for the Israelis to afford.

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