Events in the relationship between Israel and Turkey moved very quickly on Friday after the publication of the Palmer Report which is the UN sponsored investigation into the Gaza Flotilla incident. The Palmer Report had been scheduled for release a number of weeks ago. Its release was delayed in order to facilitate efforts to try to reconcile the opposing positions that have been adopted by Israel and Turkey on the issue of the Gaza Flotilla incident. Ultimately, no real progress was evident in reconciling the opposing camps, and the report was formally released.
The release of the report did not reveal anything new due to the fact that most of the report’s contents had been leaked to the press in the weeks leading up to its formal release. So, it would have been known that the report supports Israel’s right to impose the Gaza blockade in order to counter the threat posed by terror groups in the strip. Palmer recognises both the extent of the threat that these groups represent to the safety of the State of Israel, and also the fact that the Gaza blockade is a legitimate and legal way of preventing the flow of arms that feed these terror activities. More than this, the Palmer report also recognises Israel’s legal right to defend her territorial waters from those who seek to compromise her security in any way.
The report did reserve some criticism for Israel, for the way in which her security forces dealt with the protestors who mobbed them after they boarded the Marvi Marmara. Palmer decided that the response of the Israeli soldiers was “excessive” and “unreasonable”. Although I don’t agree with Palmer’s conclusion when considering the type of attack that these soldiers came under when they boarded the ship, I do agree that the soldiers should have considered the tactics used to board the ship more carefully, given the level of threat that was already evident from the protestors on the ship.
In view of the conclusions reached by the Palmer report, the response by the Turkish government on Friday took many people by surprise. No longer had the report officially been released, and the announcement came from Ankara that the Israeli ambassador was to be expelled from Turkey. This was accompanied by a downgrade of diplomatic relations to the lowest possible level, and the cancellation of all military agreements in place between the two countries. Many have asked what justification Turkey has for this extreme response to the Palmer report, when the bulk of the report actually supports Israel’s position.
Ever since the events of the Marvi Marmara which resulted in the death of 9 Turkish activists after they attacked the Israeli boarding party, Turkey has insisted that Israel issues a formal apology to Turkey for the deaths. Turkey has also insisted that Israel pays compensation to the families of the 9 victims. Israel has refused to issue a formal apology, even though the Israeli government did express regret for their deaths. There are those, even senior Israeli government officials, who hold the view that it would be best for Israel to issue an apology in the interests of preserving the relationship between Israel and Turkey. I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu has made the correct choice not to issue a formal apology, even if this means the deterioration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The main reason that I support Netanyahu’s position not to issue a formal apology, is because I feel that this would admit guilt on Israel’s part. The only thing that Israel was guilty of, was protecting its territorial waters and enforcing the Gaza blockade. The Palmer report has already confirmed Israel’s rights to these two activities. Additionally, issuing an apology would conceal the role of the Turkish government in the Marvi Marmara incident. The Gaza Flotilla was largely facilitated by a Turkish NGO known by the acronym IHH. This was the organisation that purchased the Marvi Marmara with the intention of sailing to Gaza to break the Israeli blockade. There are those who have accused the Turkish government of providing at least some of the financing to the IHH for the purchase of the Marvi Marmara. Even if this was not the case, there can be no doubt that the IHH had the support of the Turkish government in its quest to confront the Israeli government over the Gaza blockade. A year later, the efforts that the Greek government made to prevent the flotilla from departing Piraeus were in stark contrast to the tacit (or even active) support given by the Turkish government to the first flotilla. It seems only logical that the Turkish government be held responsible for its role in facilitating the fiasco. The truth remains that the Turkish government should have prevented the confrontation from taking place in the first place by preventing the flotilla from departing its shores. Placing the entire blame of the confrontation on Israel is a gross misrepresentation of the truth.
The speed with which the Turkish government moved to expel the Israeli the envoy, and the manner in which the demand was made for a formal apology without any option of a compromise, has made me wonder whether the Turks were not simply looking for an excuse to downgrade their relations with Israel. The Marvi Marmara incident may have given them the perfect pretext to do so. One could possibly even trace the start of the downward trend in relations between the two countries to the re-election of Prime Minister Erdogan and his (Islamic) Justice and Development Party in 2007. Turkey has come under greater influence of the Islamists, and this is clearly not compatible with close relations with Israel. The Gaza flotilla incident is simply one significant point along a line that has been sloping downward for some time. Could it be that Turkey’s newest ally, Iran, has demanded that it break ties with Israel because Iran is unable to contemplate close relations with a country that counts Israel as one of its strategic friends? This is certainly not inconceivable.
Turkey’s behaviour in the Gaza flotilla affair, starting with its support for the flotilla through its demands of Israel for a formal apology, and now ending with its rejection of many of the conclusions of the Palmer Report risks alienating Turkey. Whereas it had the chance to try to seek a compromise solution, there now seems to be no way down from its current position. In downgrading its diplomatic relations with Israel, Turkey also risks damaging any relationship that it has with the USA and other European countries. This is not because these countries are so concerned about Turkey’s relations with Israel, but because it seems as though this decision pushes Turkey into the firm clutches of Iran.
Having recovered from being the “sick man of Europe”, a term attributed to the Ottoman Empire around the time of the First World War, Turkey has succeeded in achieving unparalleled economic and cultural development over the past twenty years. It has also suffered disappointment, particularly in connection with its efforts to be accepted for membership to the European Union. Any step, however, that takes it nearer to Iran and alienates it from the west will, in my estimation, be extremely damaging for Turkey in the longer term. It also makes Turkey a much less attractive friend for Israel. If Turkey continues to court Iran as a friend, Turkey is not an ally that Israel would wish to keep.