In May 2010, the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship, led a flotilla bound for Gaza, which planned to break the Israeli naval blockade. It was a humanitarian mission protesting against the harsh blockade, which was preventing essential food and medical supplies from reaching the Gaza Strip. On 31 May, Israeli forces boarded the ship from speedboats and helicopters and killed nine Turkish activists.
The incident drew international condemnation – despite Israel's claim that the soldiers were acting in self-defence after passengers attacked them with makeshift weapons. In the aftermath of the raid, the blockade on Gaza was relaxed, although it was not lifted. There was no softening, however, of Israel's relationship with Turkey, which was seriously damaged by the incident. Turkish Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan described the attack as "state terrorism", and recalled Turkey's ambassador from Tel-Aviv. Relations took another knock after the UN's report into the raid in September 2011, which led to Erdogan expelling the Israeli ambassador from Ankara and suspending military co-operation. Israeli officials said that they hoped to restore relations, but maintained that they would not apologise. For the past three years, the stalemate has remained.
But all that changed yesterday, when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called Erdogan and apologised. Following the 30 minute conversation, Netanyahu's office issued the following statement: "[Netanyahu] made clear that the tragic outcome of the Mavi Marmara incident was not intended by Israel and that Israel regrets the loss of human life and injury. In light of Israel's investigation into the incident which pointed to a number of operational mistakes, the Prime Minister expressed Israel's apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury and agreed to conclude an agreement on compensation/non-liability."
After the call, each country said it would return ambassadors to the other. Turkey has agreed to drop its legal proceedings against IDF soldiers. Israel, as indicated in the statement, will offer some compensation to the families of the victims. All in all, this appears to be at least a partial normalisation of the relationship. But what was behind Israel's sudden turnaround, and what does this mean for relations going forward?
First and foremost, it seems that both countries have bowed to US pressure to patch things up. US President Barack Obama, who has been in the Middle East, was present when Netanyahu made the call to Erdogan. Following the conversation, Obama gave a statement, saying that America attaches "great importance to the restoration of positive relations between [Turkey and Israel]", expressing hope that the conversation would allow the two leaders to "engage in deeper cooperation" on this and other matters.
Israel-Turkey relations are important not just to the US, but to both of the countries themselves. Before the flotilla raid, tourism and trade links between the two were flourishing. These links go back a long time. Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to formally recognise Israel, and diplomatic relations were formalised in 1949. Since then, the two countries have placed a high priority on military, strategic, and diplomatic cooperation, as they shared concerns about the instability of the region. In addition to US pressure, that regional instability appears to have played a part here. "The fact that the crisis in Syria is getting worse by the minute was the central consideration in my eyes," said Netanyahu on his Facebook page.
While an end to the discord serves both leaders as the Syria conflict threatens to spill over its borders and into neighbouring states, it seems unlikely that this is the end of all tension. The news of the apology was greeted jubilantly in Turkey, with billboards in Ankara proclaiming: "Israel apologized to Turkey. Dear prime minister, we are grateful that you let our country experience this pride." Yet Erdogan will still have to protect himself from the accusation that he has capitulated. Perhaps for this reason, he has been reserved, stating that relations will not be fully normalised until all the conditions have been met. Arab Member of the Knesset, Haneen Zoabi, has already said that Netanyahu's statement was not a "real apology", and that it has come too late.
Netanyahu has also come under criticism. Israel's Frontpage magazine warns that in apologising, "Israel humiliated itself and its soldiers, and so projected an image of profound weakness", as well as opening the door to further demands for apologies. One imagines that the gloating tone of the billboards in Ankara will confirm the worst fears of these critics.
All in all, the apology has been an important step forward for repairing relations between Turkey and Israel. But while this may be the beginning of the end of the crisis, it is clearly going to take more time and effort from both sides before things are back to business as usual.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.