What Obama said to get Netanyahu to apologize to Turkey for Mavi Marmara "operational errors"

We really don’t know, yet, what U.S. President Barack Obama said, or did, to get Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to offer, finally, an apology to Turkey for the deaths of 9 Turkish men [one of them a 19-year-old Turkish-American high school student]… but the fact that one of the dead was a 19-year-old American high school student Furkan Dogan may have been part of Obama’s leverage.

Israel has needed to resolve this situation, in which its apology was required by clear and repeated Turkish demands, for a long time.

There were hints that a breakthrough might be coming, but nothing solid until last night’s surprise announcement.

Obama’s insistence offered Netanyahu a relatively “face-saving” way to do it. An statement issued by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office said that Netanyahu told the Turkish Prime Minister that “the tragic results regarding the Mavi Marmara were unintentional“. UPDATE: The Israeli Government Press Office has just sent around, by email, a new version, which says Netanyahu “made clear that the tragic outcome of the Mavi Marmara incident was not intended by Israel and that Israel regrets the loss of human life and injury“.

Haaretz reported here that “During the conversation, Netanyahu made it clear that ‘the tragic consequences of the Mavi Marmara flotilla were unintentional, and Israel regrets any injury or loss of life’.”

The Israeli statement also said, with notable pride about its own investigation into the “maritime incident”, that “In light of the Israeli investigation into the incident, which pointed out several operational errors, Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized to the Turkish people for any errors that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete the agreement on compensation“.
[UPDATE: The new version sent around by the Israeli GPO is almost identical to the original, above, but the word “nonliability” has been added.  It now reads as follows: “In light of Israel’s investigation into the incident which pointed to a number of operational mistakes, the Prime Minister expressed Israel’s apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury and agreed to conclude an agreement on compensation/nonliability”.]

Turkish and Israeli diplomats engaged in months of negotiations about the wording of the apology itself and the compensation Israel would offer. Israel insisted on limiting the blame to “operational errors”.

There was, reportedly, a three-way phone call between Obama, Netanyahu, and Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, made from a portable trailer set up on the runway at Ben Gurion Airport. Israeli journalists said it was a 30-minute conversation. The New York Times reported here that the call lasted 10 minutes.

The New York Times reported that “senior Turkish government officials said: ‘The Israeli prime minister, in a phone call that lasted 10 minutes, apologized to the Turkish nation for all operational mistakes evident in an investigation that led to human loses, agreed to offer compensation’.”

Obama announced the result either just before or just after Air Force One was in the air, taking off from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport en route to Amman.

A short while later, a statement published by the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, and sent by email from the Government Press Office [GPO], said:
“…The Prime Minister expressed regret over the deterioration in bilateral relations and noted his commitment to working out the disagreements in order to advance peace and regional stability. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that he saw Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent interview in a Danish newspaper and expressed his appreciation for the latter’s remarks. The Prime Minister made it clear that the tragic results regarding the Mavi Marmara were unintentional and that Israel expresses regret over injuries and loss of life. In light of the Israeli investigation into the incident, which pointed out several operational errors, Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized to the Turkish people for any errors that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete the agreement on compensation”.

Turkish officials confirmed that Erdogan had, “on behalf of Turkey”, accepted the apology proferred by Netanyahu.

UPDATE: In the new version sent around by the Israeli GPO, the following is omitted: The Israeli statement claimed that “The two men agreed to restore normalization between Israel and Turkey, including the dispatch of ambassadors and the cancellation of legal steps against IDF soldiers”.

The revised Israeli statement is now posted on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s website, here

The Times of Israel reported here that Erdogan said, shortly after the announcement of the apology + its acceptance, that “it was too early to cancel legal steps against Israeli soldiers who took part in the raid on the Mavi Mamara”.

As the Times of Israel noted, “four IDF generals stand accused of war crimes over the incident. The indictment, prepared last summer, sought ten aggravated life sentences for each officer ostensibly involved in the 2010 raid — including former chief of the IDF General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former head of military intelligence Amos Yadlin”.

The Times of Israel added that, according to the Hurriyet daily, Erdogan also said the exchange of ambassadors between Israel and Turkey would not take place immediately…Erdogan said that, in the past, Israel had ‘expressed regret several times, refusing to offer a formal apology’ over the killings of nine Turkish citizens of the Marmara in 2010 — the incident that led to the freezing of Israeli-Turkish ties. However, Ankara had ‘insisted on an apology’, he said. That apology had finally been delivered by Netanyahu on Friday, he said. ‘All our demands have now been met with that apology which was offered the way we wanted’.”

The Times of Israel also reported, in the same story, that “Erdogan also announced plans to visit Gaza, possibly next month. Hamas’s Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, calling Netanyahu’s apology ‘a diplomatic victory for Ankara’, confirmed Erdogan would visit ‘in the near future’, and said this trip would mark ‘a significant step to ending the political and economic blockade’ of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip”. According to this report, Erdogan may visit both Gaza and the West Bank in April, “in the context of a general effort to contribute to the resolution process”, Erdogan is quoted as saying.

Other Hamas sources were less enthusiastic about the apology, however.

The Israeli statement said that “Prime Minister Netanyahu also noted that Israel has already lifted several restrictions on the movement of civilians and goods to all of the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and added that this will continue as long as the quiet is maintained”.

But, this rang a bit hollow a day after four rockets were reportedly fired from Gaza, with two hitting Israeli areas, after which the Israeli Defense Forces announced that they were reinstating crippling restrictions on Gaza’s fishermen that were lifted in a cease-fire agreement with Hamas brokered by Egypt after Operation Pillar of Clouds last November.

In a separate but related development, Hamas “complained to Egypt Friday after Israel suspended part of a Cairo-brokered truce agreement by halving Palestinian access to fishing waters in response to a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip”. This is reported here. It was also reported, in another story, here, that “Gaza’s Hamas rulers have arrested two Salafist militants, sources close to the Palestinian Islamist hardliners said Friday, after a Salafist group claimed a rocket attack on Israel. A coalition of Salafist groups in Gaza, which oppose the Hamas regime, claimed responsibility for the firing of two rockets at southern Israel on Thursday while US President Barack Obama was visiting…”

Reuters reported here that “Ankara expelled Israel’s ambassador and froze military cooperation after a UN report into the Mavi Marmara incident, released in September 2011, largely exonerated the Jewish state. Israel had previously balked at apologizing to the Turks, saying this would be tantamount to admitting moral culpability and would invite lawsuits against its troops. Voicing until now only ‘regret’ over the Mavi Marmara incident, Israel has offered to pay into what it called a ‘humanitarian fund’ through which casualties and their relatives could be compensated. A source in Netanyahu’s office said opening a new chapter with Turkey ‘can be very, very important for the future, regarding what happens with Syria but not just what happens with Syria’.”

UPDATE TWO: Laura Rozen wrote on Al-Monitor here that “Once close Israeli-Turkish ties have been deeply strained since Israel’s 2008 Cast Lead operation against Hamas, and more broadly as Erdogan’s ruling Islamist Justice and Peace (AKP) party has moved against the country’s once dominant secular military commanders. Military ties formed the backbone of the Turkish-Israeli alliance at its height, said Dan Arbell, a former Israeli diplomat studying the relationship as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Instition. Even the restoration of formal diplomatic ties now–as well as brisk economic trade–is not likely to return Israel and Turkey to the level of rapport they enjoyed in the past, given the reduced role the Turkish military plays in the country under Erdogan and the AKP, he said. ‘This begins a process of normalization, but I do not see it bringing the countries back to the level of relations they had between them in the 1990s’, Arbell, Israel’s former Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington, told Al-Monitor in an interview Friday, adding that there has been, however, a growing “’convergence of interests’ between Ankara and Jerusalem, including on the Syria conflict and Iran. Though Turkish-Israeli reconciliation was certain to be on the agenda for discussion during Obama’s conversations in Israel this week, Arbell said he was pleasantly surprised at the speed of the diplomatic breakthrough”.

The Haaretz report noted that “Over the past few months, Israel and Turkey have been trying to reach an agreement over the wording of an apology, in an attempt to end the bilateral crisis. Just a few weeks ago, Turkey’s Undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry Feridun Sinirlio?lu met in Rome with Israel’s National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror and envoy Joseph Ciechanover. But during this meeting the parties failed to reach a magic formula to bring the crisis to an end. Part of the reason the reconciliation talks between Turkey and Israel encountered difficulties was because of Erdogan’s inflammatory comments a few weeks ago. During a United Nations Conference in Vienna, Erdogan called Zionism a ‘crime against humanity’, and compared it to fascism. Erdogan’s comments caused great anger in both Jerusalem and Washington”.

Perhaps Erdogan said something placatory today, too.

[Israel’s former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, now chairman of the Knesset Foreign Relations + Defense Committee, said that unless Erdogan apologized as well, in today’s phone call, for his “crime against humanity” accusation, Israel’s dignity would be compromised”. Brent Sasley wrote here a blog post today saying that “It’s hard to avoid noticing that the apology was only realized with Avigdor Lieberman gone from the Foreign Ministry. Blustering and belligerent, Lieberman was never the right choice for the position. If Bibi’s apology can warm his relationship with Obama, reset the relationship with Turkey, and lead to the inclusion rather than exclusion of Israel in global and regional forums, conferences, and exercises, then it’s hard to argue bringing Lieberman back is a good thing. In fact, the obvious conclusion is the opposite one: Israel can accomplish much with Foreign Minister who’s pragmatic and has a broader sense of Israel’s position in the world”.]

Now, back to the opening question: what did Obama do to get Netanyahu to take this step?  Here’s one strange theory, from The Washington Institute’s Robert Satloff: “It is no coincidence that Netanyahu spoke by phone with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan just as President Obama was departing Israel for Jordan, opening the door to a mutual return of ambassadors. Mending ties between the two leaders has long been a U.S. objective. The fact that Obama delivered a highly symbolic (if indirect) rebuke to Erdogan by visiting the tomb of Theodor Herzl — implicitly endorsing the ideology that the Turkish leader recently called a “crime against humanity” — almost certainly gave cover for Netanyahu to reach out to Ankara”... This is posted here.

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