As the regional situation continues to be extremely tense, Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu today met with journalists from three Turkish newspapers: Hurriyet, Zaman and HaberTurk. Earlier, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met the three journalists.
It was a surprise.
On Twitter, Zaman journalist @MahirZeynalov that his newpaper’s correspondent reported that “the Turkish flag was displayed during the interview, in a hall where Israeli cabinet meets”.
Hours later, the Israeli media was almost unanimously reporting that Israel was on the verge of reestablishing relations with Turkey.
But, it was Turkey who lowered the level of its relations with Israel, because Israel has not apologized for the deaths of nine men aboard the Mavi Marmara when it was boarded by Israeli commandos at the end of May 2010.
Nine Turkish men, including one Turkish-American high school student, were killed during an Israeli commando boarding of the 600-passenger Mavi Marmara on the high seas in the Eastern Mediterranean on 30 May 2010. The Mavi Marmara was en route to Gaza as part of a Freedom Flotilla that intended to “break the siege on Gaza”, almost 1.5 years after Israel declared a formal naval blockade on the Gaza Strip.
Turkey has continued to insist that Israel must apologize for the deaths, and must also offer compensation to the families of the men who were killed during the botched boarding.
It is not yet known what effort Netanyahu or Lieberman might have made, during their separate meetings with the three Turkish journalists, in the direction of meeting either or Turkey’s demands.
But, apparently no apology was offered.
UPDATE: Today’s Zaman has reported here that “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained that Turkey and Israel are looking for ways to normalize political relations, saying, ‘We want to restore relations with Turkey’. As the crisis in Syria aggravates and instability in the region looms, Israel has started to send warm messages, the first of which came from Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman last week, to Turkey in an effort to mend significantly damaged diplomatic relations. Relations between the two countries have been strained since 2010, when Israeli troops killed nine civilians of Turkish origin in cold blood during a raid of the Mavi Marmara vessel in international waters as it headed to the Gaza Strip to deliver humanitarian aid supplies”.
Today’s Zaman also reported that “As another indication of importance Israel attaches to restoring political relations with Turkey, Netanyahu received Turkish journalists in the same room where Israel’s National Security Cabinet meets. And in the back, behind Netanyahu both Israeli and Turkish flags stood”. The newspaper politely avoided making any comparison with Israel Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s deliberate humiliation of Turkey’s Ambassador to Israel by summoning Israeli media to the Foreign Ministry and then explaining, in Hebrew, while the Turkish diplomat was in the room, that the chair on which he had been offered a seat was lower than the chair Ayalon was using.
UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post reported here that “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Monday with a delegation of eight senior Turkish print journalists the Foreign Ministry brought to Israel in an attempt to “break the ice” with Turkey’s public. The delegation, representing such leading Turkish newspapers as Hurriyet, Zaman and Haber Turk, met with Netanyahu a day after meeting with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman”. According to the JPost eport, the encounter was organized by Israel’s reduced embassy in Turkey; there were 8 Turkish journalists invited; and it was the first time in more than two years that Turkish journalists have met with Israel’s “senior leadership”. The JPost reported that an Israeli “diplomatic official said the delegation was invited because Israel was interested in reaching out to the Turkish public and letting it know that relations between the two countries were important to Jerusalem”.
Today’s Zaman noted, in its report, that “A high-level Israeli official’s comment on the present situation in the region was revealing as to why Israel finds it necessary to mend ties with Turkey: ‘Now that the circumstances and interests have changed. We need to get positioned accordingly’.”
There were months of Israeli-Turkish negotiations about an apology, which fell apart.
We reported a year ago, here that Özdem Sanberk, described as “one of Turkey’s most experienced diplomats” and Turkey’s representative to the panel appointed by the UN Secretary General, which came up with the UN’s Palmer Report, said in an interview published on 19 July 2011 in Today’s Zaman that “obviously we cannot be expected to accept nine deaths”.
Sanberk gave the interview after a week of closed-door negotiations in New York at the beginning of July 2011. The paper added that “The report’s publication has been further delayed until the end of July in a [further] attempt to give Turkey and Israel a chance to resolve their differences”.
In fact, as the negotiations over an apology continued, the publication of the UN Report was delayed until it was actually leaked, in an precipitous action, by the New York Times on 1 September.
Sanberk noted last July that in the negotiations over an apology Israel “repeatedly expressed their demand for understanding in the face of their serious security problems, and expect the same understanding from Turkey, which they see as a friend”.
The situation appears to be the same today.
Sanberk also expressed disagreement with the then-draft conclusions of the UN Palmer Commission’s Report on the grounds of whether or not Israel’s maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip was legal and legtimate, or not — because “we know that the Israeli blockade of Gaza amounts to collective punishment as it includes civilians, women and children who bear no responsibility for the perceived threat to Israel”. Sanberk also said that “even though these details are not clearly stated in the [UN] panel’s report, another UN body, the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission in Geneva, had said last October that Israel’s military violated international law during the raid”.
Now, Today’s Zaman has just reported that: “According to the high-level official, the two countries have been trying to find a magical formula to mend the bilateral ties, but as of yet the efforts remain fruitless. Noting that they are open to proposals from third parties regarding the magical formula, ‘The formula needs to not only appeal to both countries but it should also not harm the dignity of either country’, the official remarked. The Israeli official repeated their standard version of the Mavi Marmara incident, maintaining that the incident also led to trauma in Israel, but he is of the opinion that it is important for the two countries to get over the trauma at this point”.
However, on 1 September 2011 there was an under-reported apology of sorts offered, in what was presented as an unofficial way — but it didn’t do the job, As we reported at the time, here, the former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz [Haloutz] told journalists at a hastily-organized briefing for journalists at the Misheknot Shaananim center in Jerusalem: “Yes, we are sorry people were killed during the operation, very sorry”.
Was that an attempt at satisfying Turkey’s requirement of an apology?
The timing and purpose of the press briefing that day would otherwise seem…vague. It was only afterwards that journalists there realized the New York Times was about to publish the leaked UN Palmer report. But Israeli officials knew in advance.
Halutz appeared at the press briefing in the company of a professional Public Relations man [who also had a military rank].
But, in response to a question about whether it was an apology, Halutz seemed to back off a bit, qualifying his words: “I believe there were some innocent ones among those nine, but…that mission was not so innocent … The word apology is too strong…because Israel was doing a legal action to prevent [a violation] of the siege we imposed”.
Halutz added: “Our soldiers were under a live threat”.
Halutz was IDF Chief of Staff from 2005-2007, and was previously commander of the Israeli Air Force, and said he had made many trips to Turkey in his professional capacity. But, he is now retired from active military service, having been severely criticized for Israel’s military performance during the Second Lebanon War. After retirement, he dabbled briefly in business before joining, in early 2011, the opposition Kadima party, which he has since left.
Halutz spoke in the briefing about his close ties with his counterparts in the Turkish military during his period as ID Chief of Staff.
But, as Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal notes, in Israel Halutz is remembered for other reasons: “When asked what he feels when he drops a multi-ton bomb on a Palestinian building in Gaza [after this powerful explosion killed more than a dozen members of a family in an effort to eliminate one man], his response was ‘a bump in my plane’. For the general public, he’s known for having found the time on the morning of the second Lebanon War to protect his savings in his bank account, based on his advance knowledge of what was about to happen. His historic role is having replaced Ya’alon as chief of staff at the request of Sharon, because Ya’alon had misgivings about the disengagement from Gaza, while Halutz was ready to carry it out”…
Schenker added that though Halutz was “one of the trio of leaders, together with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz who are perceived in Israel to be responsible for ‘the failure’ of the Second Lebanon War, he was the first to pay the price with his position — particularly since he was the only one of the three considered to have security expertise”.
The way that the Halutz press conference was so hastily arranged last 1 September suggests something and somebody other than Halutz by himself was behind it. The timing — just hours before an early version of the UN Palmer report on the Mavi Marmara boarding was leaked to the New York Times — suggests it was a deliberate attempt either at damage control or at altering the course of reaction. Halutz was accompanied by a PR escort [who was also a serving IDF officer, though not in uniform in that PR function]. And, an official of Dore Gold’s Jerusalem Center for Policy Affairs was also present, unusually — and this person appeared to be functioning in that event as a journalist, and asked a question that led to Halutz saying: “We’re sorry, we’re very sorry”.
Halutz himself, who chain-smoked nervously after the briefing, then raced all the way up several flights of steep stone steps, taking two at a time, with his PR escort bounding up a few steps behind Halutz.
The UN report, released a few hours later, made pointed criticism about the use of force, and resistance, during the Israeli naval interception — which, the report notes, took place 72 nautical miles off the coast, well outside of Israeli territorial waters [or Gaza’s maritime space]:
“Israel´s decision to board the vessels with such substantial force at a great distance from the blockade zone and with no final warning immediately prior to the boarding was excessive and unreasonable … Non-violent options should have been used in the first instance…[and]…The operation should have reassessed its options when the resistance to the initial boarding attempt became apparent…”
“Israeli Defense Forces personnel faced significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara requiring them to use force for their own protection. Three soldiers were captured, mistreated, and placed at risk by those passengers. Several others were wounded…”
“The loss of life and injuries resulting from the use of force by Israeli forces during the take-over of the Mavi Marmara was unacceptable. Nine passengers were killed and many others seriously wounded by Israeli forces. No satisfactory explanation has been provided to the Panel by Israel for any of the nine deaths. Forensic evidence showing that most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range has not been adequately accounted for in the material presented by Israel…”
In its report on the meeting with Netanyahu yesterday, Today’s Zaman noted that “Deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel, which earlier enjoyed rather good relations at all levels, started at the end of 2008 when Israel, which was on the verge of concluding a peace agreement with Syria, with Turkey acting as the mediator, suddenly bombarded the Gaza Strip in a devastating assault, eliminating all hopes for peace with Syria. Turkey probably felt deceived at the time and had the impression that its efforts to bring about peace were not given due respect by Israel. Then came the Davos summit in Switzerland in January 2009, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke out against Shimon Peres for bombarding Gaza and walked out of the forum. Then in May 2010 came the raid by Israeli soldiers on the Mavi Marmara that led to the death of nine Turkish civilians”.
[It should be noted that Israel was raising alarms about the Freedom Flotilla being a “terrorist” threat against Israel’s interests — and its blockade of Gaza — for months before the Flotilla set sail for Gaza, before the Israeli commandos descended from hovering helicopters onto the decks of the Mavi Marmara. Nine Turkish men were then killed… which Turkish officials have said cannot be forgotten.]