Sunday, July 31, 2011

Will Israel Apologise For Raid?

By Musa Keilani

There is ongoing debate in Israel over the Turkish demand for an apology for the deadly Israeli raid on the Freedom Flotilla that killed nine Turks in May last year. Reports suggest that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might meet the demand. His hard-line foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman has apparently dropped his threat to quit the coalition or at least resign from his Cabinet job if Israel apologises to Turkey.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who is aware of the strategic value of relations with Turkey, is in favour of making a compromise.

“I’m not talking about an apology for the blockade or an apology for the flotilla, but about saying that if any errors were made during the operation - we regret them,” he said on Friday. “It’s not a bad thing to have reasonable relations with Turkey in a region which has instability in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and a hostile Iran.” However, it does not seem possible for Israel to normalise relations with Turkey without an explicit apology.

Discussions are said to be held behind the scenes between the two sides over the issue. Israel seems to think that the report of a UN inquiry into the Israeli commando raid is an ace card because it criticises the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan for having given the go-ahead for the flotilla. The flotilla was organised by an Islamic charity group, which Israel has accused of having relations with Hamas and hard-line groups in Muslim countries. The release of the UN report, which is also critical of Israel, has been delayed until August 20 because of Israeli-Turkish disagreements within the panel that conducted the inquiry.

However, Erdogan cannot switch positions because he has to take into consideration Turkish public opinion, which has shown that Turks are furious with Israel over the raid and have fully endorsed Ankara’s demand for an Israeli apology and compensation for the victims. Israel is reportedly ready to pay compensation but has rejected the Turkish demand that it lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip that the flotilla had sought to breach.

Barak admits that the report includes “very important conclusions for Israel,” but it also puts “Turkey in the corner in terms of the justification for the blockade, the justification for stopping the flotilla and the justification for using force.” That is a posture. Israel did violate international law because there was no indication that the flotilla represented a threat to its security.

Furthermore, the flotilla was in international waters when the Israeli commandos boarded the ships.

“On the other hand, there is a problematic element dealing with what happened during the operation. We don’t agree with many things, but we must make a choice between a problematic report and reaching an understanding with Turkey, so that the things that bother us are clarified and there are no lawsuits across the world on the part of Turkey against Israel or against officers and commanders,” he added. Well, that is an issue that Israel has always highlighted: protecting its soldiers, which is of course na?ural for any country.

The ferocity with which the Israeli commandos carried out the raid shows that they treated the pro-Palestinian activists on board the flotilla as badly as they treat Palestinians living under occupation. Those who ordered them overlooked that the activists were not subject to Israeli law but international law. And they have to face the music.

The problem here for the Israelis is that they have always managed to get away with things that no other country would ever hope to get away with. And apologising for something they committed is not in their dictionary.

According to reports, Turkey will not press any case against Israeli soldiers in return for an apology that has to be made in public.

Israeli hard-liners argue that such an apology will offer evidence against those who carried out the raid and this could be used by some of the activists aboard the flotilla who need not find themselves bound by the Turkish undertaking against lawsuits. Well, there is no escape from it.

In the end, it seems, Israel might offer an apology. After all, the way Barak put it, Israel needs to have normal relations with Turkey, a key regional player.

However, the relationship will never be the same. Erdogan has assumed the role of a hero among Palestinians and Muslims because of his support for Arab and Muslim causes. He has found new popularity among his own people.

Turkey’s experience with the West, particularly its bid to join the European Union, has taught the country that it would be better off building relations with the Arab and Muslim world rather than trying to deal with Europeans, a majority of whom are not comfortable with Turks in general.

That approach would definitely not allow Turkey to go back to the same level of comprehensive strategic relations it used to have with Israel before the raid. And that is the biggest loss for Israel’s foresight planners.

This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 31/07/2011

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