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Israel, Turkey at odds over flotilla-clash apology
JERUSALEM | When Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom left his post as foreign minister in 2006, his staff checked to see which country’s counterpart he had met with most often. The answer, as it turned out, was not the United States, or a European Union state, and not one of Israel’s Arab neighbors.
The two still have “a very good friendship,” he said, though the same cannot be said for their two countries, whose long-standing alliance remains in tatters more than seven months after nine Turkish nationals were killed by Israeli commandos in a clash aboard a ship seeking to run Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Since then, the war of words between the countries’ leaders has only escalated, with polls showing a growing hostility between the two publics.
Turkey has yet to return its ambassador to Tel Aviv, and the once-intimate Israeli-Turkish cooperation on defense and intelligence matters is still frozen.
“I hope it can be different,” said Mr. Shalom. “I’m not so sure these days.”
Talks to restore relations that were launched in the wake of last month’s Israeli wildfire — Turkey took a leading role in the international firefighting effort — have reportedly stalled over the wording of the flotilla-clash apology Ankara wants, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanding that Israel “apologize to the Turkish republic.” Israeli officials prefer to use verbal formulations that express regret for the bloodshed without accepting Israeli responsibility.
In Israel, however, the news that Ankara might receive any form of apology puzzled many.
“But why?” Mr. Shalom said when asked about the Turkish demand. “It was a provocation. And those who were waiting [on the ship’s deck] for the Israeli soldiers, to hit them and try to kill them, to stab them. And those Israeli soldiers came with paintball guns.”
Yuli Edelstein, another minister from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud Party, said in an interview that “Turkey is very important for us” and that “if [Israeli overtures to Ankara are] about trying to do everything in our power to improve our relations, I’m all in favor.”
“If it’s about crazy ideas like apologizing for the flotilla,” he noted, “I think the apology should come the other way around.”
Avi Dichter, a member of the Knesset from the centrist Kadima party and formerly the chief of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service, said the scene aboard the Mavi Marmara would have been far bloodier had the situation been reversed.
“Trust me,” he said, “Turkish troops on the Israeli Marmara would kill tens. No doubt about it. And they know it.”
In many respects, however, the flotilla incident was the culmination, not the beginning, of a deterioration that had been taking place for well over a year. The previous month, Turkey conducted a joint defense drill with Syria, Israel’s longtime adversary, which has clashed in the past with Ankara as well.
Turkey had also been warming up to another Israeli enemy, Iran, later voting against a fourth round of sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.
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About the Author
Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.
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