In a move that had apparently been carefully choreographed by the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu picked up the phone today and called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with an apology for the 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish flotilla that killed nine Turkish citizens. Erdogan accepted.
The call came on the last day of President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Israel and with Obama seated nearby. In fact, at one point Obama reportedly joined the call himself.
The White House released news of the call; Israeli officials initially declined comment.
A senior White House official said Netanyahu apologized for “operational mistakes” during the raid. The flotilla was attempting to break Israel’s embargo on all shipments to Hamas-controlled Gaza to prevent the importation of missiles and other weapons that could be fired at Israel.
The phone call was the first step in a diplomatic reconciliation that Israel has attempted on numerous occasions – even sending different emissaries to Turkey.
Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, said Netanyahu’s call to Erdogan was “not a spur of the moment thing. Obama had planned to raise the issue [during his visit] and Netanyahu was expecting it. They had been having ongoing private discussions, and Erdogan was expecting the call. … Erdogan and Netanyahu needed a face saving way out [of their diplomatic impasse], and the U.S. prodding helped them do something now rather than later.”
Turkey has been more receptive in recent months to resolving the row because of the worsening crisis in Syria. More than 70,000 people have died in Syria since an uprising to overthrow President Bashar Assad began two years ago. Fighting has occasionally spilled over the border into Turkey and Syrian forces have shot down a Turkish warplane. Syria said it was self-defense; Turkey declared it an “act of aggression.”
Ben-Meir said the conflict in Syria “is so bad that it is bound to have a major affect on both Turkey and Israel” because both share a border with Syria.
“It was thought that this was the proper time – more than any other – to put this issue [between Israel and Turkey] behind them in order to collaborate and cooperate in dealing with the repercussions from Syria. And what both sides needed was a push from Obama, who has privately spoken with them. He said that if there is no other issue [separating them] other than an apology, this is the time to do it.”
Ben-Meir said that although Netanyahu had wanted to issue a similar apology several months ago, both Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak opposed it.
“Barak threatened to leave the government if he apologized,” Ben-Meir said.
But with neither man currently in the new government (the foreign ministry post is being held for Lieberman pending the outcome of a criminal case against him), he said the new leadership believes it is “far more important to apologize and get on with it and reestablish relations with a Moslem state because Israel is increasingly being isolated.”
In order for the apology to happen, however, Erdogan was told that he would have to back away from his most recent anti-Israel statement, in which he equated Zionism with anti-Semitism and crimes against humanity. So Erdogan last week told a Danish newspaper in recent days that he was referring only to certain Israeli acts and not the Zionist movement, per se.
“Netanyahu could not have made an apology without that,” Ben-Meir noted.
Erdogan’s initial comment were seen as so incendiary, that some members of Congress proposed cutting off all U.S. aid to Turkey unless Erdogan retracted the statement.
In a statement after the phone call, Obama said: “The United States deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security. I am hopeful that today's exchange between the two leaders will enable them to engage in deeper cooperation on this and a range of other challenges and opportunities.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that during the group’s recent meeting with Obama he “placed emphasis” on the need to see Israel and Turkey resume diplomatic relations.
“They will now move quickly” on restoring relations, he said. “It is something both sides wanted. Turkey is still a major player not only in the Middle East but, given the developments in Syria and the potential outcomes, it is essential that Turkey and Israel communicate and hopefully coordinate.”
Ben-Meir said he would expect to see the two countries exchange ambassadors within a matter of days.
“My sources are telling me that the Turkish ambassador to Israel has had his bags packed for months and that he has been ready to leave [for Israel] as soon as the apology happened,” he said.
Ben-Meir said he believes Israel will send a new ambassador who has not yet been announced.
Once the ambassadors are in place, he said, the two countries can “begin more serious collaboration and intelligence sharing regarding Syria.”
Despite the breaking of diplomatic relations, trade between Israel and Turkey increased to record levels. They signed a free trade agreement in 1996 and trade between them totaled $4.4 billion in 2011, only to increase to about $5 billion last year.
The restoration of good relations with Turkey might also help Israel in dealing with Hamas, a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
“Turkey has good relations with Hamas and has been saying privately that as long as there is no apology from Israel, it would not attempt to persuade Hamas to abandon violence,” Ben-Meir said.