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Turkey's firm stance pays dividends

January 28, 2014 at 2:20 am

By Omar Radwan

Last week Israel agreed unexpectedly to cooperate with a UN investigation into its raid on the Freedom Flotilla in May. This is the first time in history that Israel has agreed to cooperate with a UN inquiry into its actions. The new willingness to cooperate stands in stark contrast to its attitude towards the UN’s Goldstone Inquiry and Report into the crimes committed during the war on Gaza. After the flotilla raid, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel and said that it would not normalise relations unless Israel agreed to an international investigation into the incident. It now looks as if Israel has recognised the true cost of the breakdown of its relationship with Turkey.

Historically, Turkey has been the only Muslim state with which Israel enjoyed good relations, with significant military and economic cooperation between the two states; Israel saw Turkey as a strategic partner. However, the Jewish state’s attack on Gaza in December 2008 drew strong Turkish condemnation and relations cooled significantly. Israel soon realised that Turkey was no longer the ally it once was and relations broke down completely after the murder of nine Turkish citizens during the raid on the flotilla. This was a major setback for Israel because Turkey was one of the few states in the Middle East that it could call an ally. Despite not being a member of the European Union, Turkey also has considerable influence in Europe and on European policy towards the Middle East. This was shown when British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Turkey recently and called Gaza a “prison camp”, agreeing with the views of his Turkish hosts. As a member of NATO, Turkey is an ally of the United States and has acted as an intermediary between Israel and the Arab states. The benefits of the latter have been the facilitation of negotiations between Israel and Syria, and Israel and the Palestinians. Israel can ill afford to offend such an important country.

However, the government in Israel could have got away with murder, quite literally, if the Turkish government had not stood by its original demands following the flotilla attack, namely an apology, compensation to be paid to the families of the victims, an impartial international investigation of the attack and the lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believed that he could placate world opinion with an internal inquiry conducted by three Israelis with two international observers. However, Turkey stood firm, calling for an impartial international inquiry and an apology from Israel. The UN inquiry team, headed jointly by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was launched formally on Tuesday 10 August. Although there is a dispute between Israel and Turkey over its remit, with Israel insisting that the inquiry will not be allowed to question Israeli soldiers, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has said that the inquiry must have access to them.

Meanwhile, Israel’s own inquiry is ongoing and is widely expected to be a whitewash. Even so, yesterday it managed to create a split in the Israeli government with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, engaging in unseemly attempts to shift the blame for the deaths of the activists on board the Mavi Marmara. In his testimony to the inquiry Mr. Netanyahu said that the raid on the flotilla was lawful and blamed the Turkish government for allowing the ships to set sail for Gaza. However, he also revealed that in a cabinet discussion preceding the raid he asked for a “supreme effort” to avoid casualties.

This cabinet discussion, according to the Prime Minister, focused mostly on the expected public relations fallout after the raid rather than the raid itself, at the time of which he was on a trip to the United States; he said that he left Mr. Barak in charge of the operation. He also noted that the military was responsible for the actual execution of the operation. This was a very clear attempt to divert responsibility for the consequences of the raid onto the Defence Minister and the military, who were described by the opposition Kadima Party as Netanyahu’s “punch bags”. Ehud Barak said that he took “full responsibility” for the raid but then said that “the decision-making process at the political level was not the reason for the reality that emerged at the end of the operation”, attempting to shift the blame, like the Prime Minister, onto the military. He also said that the cabinet discussion before the raid was focused on the execution of the raid, rather than the public relations aspect, suggesting that Mr. Netanyahu was also responsible for what happened.

This embarrassing mudslinging between Israel’s most senior politicians shows the extent to which the country now realises it was wrong to carry out this raid and alienate a once friendly and strategically vital country. Turkey’s steadfastness and its insistence that Israel should not be allowed to get away with its crime has paid off by the Israeli decision to cooperate with the UN investigation. Turkey’s stand provides an important lesson for the Arab countries and the Palestinian Authority who all too often give way to Israel under US pressure, as they did when they agreed to enter into direct negotiations with Israel despite continued Israeli settlement activity, providing a green light for Israel to build even more settlements. Turkey has shown that a principled and tough stand is the only way to deal with Israel and get results.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.