- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2011

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.

“It was the foreign minister of Turkey — today, the president of Turkey — Abdullah Gul,” Mr. Shalom said in an interview.

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.

But the breakdown, officials from both sides agree, began when Israel attacked Hamas in Gaza in December 2008. Turkey says that the offensive, which began days after then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert returned from advanced Turkish-mediated peace talks with Syria, violated an Israeli promise that there would be calm during the talks. Turkish officials also excoriated Israel’s conduct in the 22-day conflict, which resulted in hundreds of Palestinian civilian deaths.

The tension erupted days after the war’s end at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in a heated exchange between Mr. Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

“I think it was a sign — maybe we failed to realize it at the time — that something was going on,” said Mr. Dichter. “It started there.”

A year later, in January 2010, another minicrisis erupted when Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon summoned the Turkish ambassador to protest the airing of a television show with anti-Semitic undertones and seated him, in the presence of Israeli media, on a lowered stool.

“It is not a matter of being anti-Jew or anti-Israel, it is a matter of principle,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said recently. “When Israel was working for peace, we had good relations with Israel. When they attacked Gaza and killed children and women and civilians, we were against it. When they respected our bilateral relations, we had good relations. But when they insulted our ambassador with a low chair, we had problems.”

Mr. Ayalon apologized to the ambassador. And in an interview, he said that it was incumbent upon both Israel and Turkey to “put emotions aside” and “be forward-looking.”

“All sides should drop any kinds of demands and restore relations as they were,” he said. “It’s an Israeli interest, it’s a Turkish interest, it’s an American interest, it’s a regional interest.”