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Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has finally apologized to the Turkish government for the lethal raid mounted by Israeli commandos on a mostly-Turkish aid flotilla attempting to breach the blockade of Gaza three years ago. The death of 9 Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara ship in 2010 brought relations between the two erstwhile allies to an all time low, even as the region around them was undergoing profound and violent changes. An apology and compensation for the victims has been a long-standing demand of Ankara.
Issued during the last moments of Barack Obama’s visit to Israel, the apology and the promised restoration of ties between Israel and Turkey will be considered a major diplomatic coup for the American president as well as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Israeli PM has not only apologized for the deaths of those onboard of the Mavi Marmara, but he has also promised to offer compensation to the families of the victims and take measures to ease the Gaza embargo.
The reaction in Turkey has been positive, with many feeling vindicated for having held out against Israel’s earlier attempts to write off the incident. In an interview with public broadcaster TRT later cited by the Turkish daily Hurriyet Daily News, the Turkish foreign minister noted “‘Turkey's basic demands have been met; we got what we wanted.’… Davutoglu said Israel's apology to Turkey over the Mavi Marmara raid was the result of arduous negotiations that lasted three years. ‘What appears to you as a surprise is an effort that has been pursued and forged gradually for three years.’”
The other Turkish daily, the centrist Sabah characterized the development in this way: “With this apology, the three conditions set forth by Turkey for a normalization of ties have now been fulfilled by Israel, which has also both agreed to pay compensation to the families of the victims in the Mavi Marmara raid and vowed to continue to ease the blockade on Gaza....Netanyahu apologized to the Turkish public for the loss of human life and announced that they would be paying compensation to the families of the victims. Netanyahu also requested an end to the ongoing judicial process in which certain prominent Israeli military members are being tried in absentia.”
For many observers in the region, the reasons behind the apology were almost more important than the apology itself. Ömer Taspinar, for example, in a column for the Turkish Today’s Zaman believes “the two main factors to shift Netanyahu's calculations were the formation of a new cabinet at home after the elections and the political cover provided by Obama's first official visit to Israel. With the newly formed government, Israeli public opinion wants to focus more on improving domestic governance rather than foreign policy….Obama's visit and American diplomatic statecraft was the second reason behind the apology.”
For the Jerusalem Post editorial staff, the main consideration behind Netanyahu’s change of hear was the deteriorating security situation in Syria: “Regional realities require that Israel now swallow a bitter pill and do what is right, for the future of Israel, the region and our common interests with the United States....the prime minister saw the broader picture and acted in Israel’s ultimate interests....It is clear that the deteriorating situation in Syria furnished the motivation for both Obama and Netanyahu. ‘The fact that the crisis in Syria is getting worse by the minute was the central consideration, in my eyes,’ Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page. What is needed now is for the U.S. and world powers, together with relatively moderate countries in the region — including Turkey — to put an end to the horrific civil war in Syria.”
Even though Netanyahu’s decision had the backing of the country’s main conservative newspaper, many on the right in Israel expressed profound disagreement with the prime minister’s actions, even though some of them supported him: “former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who for years opposed an Israeli apology, called Netanyahu's move a ‘grave mistake.’ ‘Such an apology demoralizes IDF soldiers,’ said Lieberman….However, armed forces chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz welcomed the move, saying he hoped it would boost the countries' security and strategic ties. Newly sworn-in Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who in the past was opposed to an official apology or direct compensation, on March 22 supported the apology.”
Still, there are those within the circles of the Israeli armed forces that have also expressed concern for what kind of message the prime minister’s apology sends to his troops. According to a recent report by Arutz Sheva’s Gil Ronen, “The former commander of the Israel Navy, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Eliezer Marom, said Sunday that soldiers from the Shayetet naval commando are upset over the prime minister's apology to his Turkish counterpart, over the IDF's Mavi Marmara counter-terror operation....’I am concerned about possible long-term damage if the soldiers and commanders fail to understand the message,’ he said. ‘A person who is sent by the IDF to carry out an operation must know that afterwards, he receives full backing for his actions, even if he made mistakes.’”
There are also those, like the Haaretz editorial staff, who think the apology was long due and that the time has come to restore trust between the two countries: “A combination of determined American diplomacy, coinciding interests, regional threats and a new political map in Israel have produced the official reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. This reconciliation should have taken place three years ago, close to the time of the tragic raid of the Mavi Marmara....The governments of Israel and Turkey must now act quickly decisively to restore ties between them and their peoples.”
Finally, for some regional observers the apology demonstrated the continuing diplomatic and military clout of the United States. As the Khaleej Times editorial is quick to point out: “The belated apology that came from Israel for the 2010 commando raid on an aid flotilla is a promising development....This turnaround, however, brought to force the United States influence in the region, as President Barack Obama prevailed over his somewhat difficult but closest ally — Israel....With Syria’s civil-strife taking its toll and the security equation between Israel and its Arab-Muslim neighbours deteriorating, it was a masterstroke of Obama to mend the fences between Tel Aviv and Ankara.”
The Saudi Gazette editorial issues a far more scathing criticism of Israel’s actions, noting “Israel’s apology to Turkey over the Mavi Marmara killings is confirmation that Israel and only Israel was responsible for the tragedy,” while emphasizing the indispensable role played by the United States: “Netanyahu’s change of heart is a clear indication of the diplomatic clout that the US still wields over Israel. The fact, though, that the call took place in a trailer at the airport while Air Force One was sitting on the runway ready to leave suggests that Obama had to put pressure on Israel to give him something to take away from his three-day visit. The last-minute nature of the call suggests that the deal may not have been easy to broker.”
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