“When implementation [of Israel promises] takes place, there will be normalization [in ties]. But if implementation is not carried out, they should not take offense. We are saying it very open and clear,” Erdoğan told a cheering crowd in Eskişehir on Sunday.
In May 2010 an Israeli military raid of the Mavi Marmara ship, which was heading to the blockaded Gaza Strip carrying humanitarian aid, resulted in the deaths of eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish American. The effects of the raid have haunted Turkish-Israeli relations since the event.
In order to mend ties, Ankara had three demands of Tel Aviv: an official apology from Israel for the Mavi Marmara raid, reparations for the families of the passengers killed on the ship and the lifting of the blockade on Gaza.
On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered an apology to Turkey for the raid, ending a deep crisis in ties between the two former allies. After the announcement, Erdoğan, who welcomed the apology, said Israel had met Turkey's demands in apologizing for the killings of Turks, paying compensation to their families and easing the blockade, all in line with Turkish expectations.
“They [Israeli officials] had expressed regret several times but refused to offer a formal apology. But we insisted on an apology. All our demands have now been met with an apology offered the way we wanted,” the prime minister said on Saturday, adding that Israel also promised to improve the humanitarian situation in Palestine territories areas, including Gaza.
On Sunday, however, an Israeli official said Israel did not commit to ending its Gaza blockade as part of reconciliation with Turkey and could clamp down even harder on the Palestinian enclave if security is threatened. "We did not agree to promise [Turkey] that under any condition we would continue to transfer all the things into Gaza and ease up on the residents of Gaza if there is shooting from there. We do not intend to give up on our right to respond to what happens in Gaza because of the agreement with the Turks," he told Israel's Army Radio.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated on Friday that Turkey will closely monitor the lifting of the Gaza blockade, as Israel promised to improve the humanitarian situation in Palestine territories.
According to the statement released from the Israeli Prime Ministry on Friday, Netanyahu noted that Israel had substantially lifted the restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and that this would continue as long as calm prevailed. “The two leaders [Netanyahu and Erdoğan] agreed to continue to work to improve the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories,” the statement also said.
Crisis in Syria, developments in Arab world led Israel to apology
From time to time, there were calls from Israeli officials to mend ties with Turkey, with the argument that the two countries have converging interests in the region, which has been experiencing turmoil due to the Arab Spring uprisings, particularly in Syria.
Netanyahu said on Saturday evening that the volatile situation in Syria and concerns that Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of terror organizations bordering Israel and Turkey led to apology.
“The fact that the crisis in Syria is getting worse by the minute was the central consideration in my eyes,” Netanyahu said on his Facebook page, adding Israel and Turkey, which border Syria, need to communicate with each other over the Syrian crisis.
According to Turkish experts, the latest developments in the Middle East region -- namely the Arab Spring uprisings and Syrian crisis -- led Israel to seek to normalize its relations with Turkey, a prominent regional actor.
Gökhan Bacık, an academic teaching International Relations at Gaziantep's Zirve University, told Today's Zaman: “Putting aside the timing and motivation behind the apology, Israel's apology to Turkey is an important development [on its own]. However, there are motives behind this move, which should be interpreted in three layers. First, the crisis in Syria poses a threat both to Turkey and Israel. Besides Syria, Israel and Turkey have common concerns regarding Syria's chemical weapons and developments in Iraq and Iran.”
Regional countries are concerned that the two-year-old Syrian crisis, which has become a tough ordeal for the region, will have a spillover effect leading to instability in the politically fragile region.
According to Bacık, the second motivating factor behind the Israeli apology was the emergence of new actors in the Middle East after the fall of the decades-old dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. “If Israel were to not have good relations with Turkey, it would be impossible for Israel to maintain good relations with the new actors in the region,” said Bacık.
Echoing Bacık's analysis, Doğu Ergil, a distinguished political scientist, told Today's Zaman that the fate of Syria would change the whole balance of power in the region, adding Israel's decision to apology was a well-planned maneuver.
“Syria under Assad was not a threat to Israel. However, with the fall of Assad, Syria may come under the power of Sunnis, and this is a threat for Israel's interests in the Golan Heights, both politically and militarily. A Sunni bloc consisting of Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia is not in the interests of Israel, which will feel encircled in such a scenario. Israel would not favor Turkey taking part in such a bloc. Therefore, it preferred to normalize relations with Turkey,” said Ergil.
Bacık also added that the apology was a difficult decision for Netanyahu, who needs to defend itself against the criticisms of the Israeli public over his decision. “By underlining the Syrian crisis as a motivation for the apology, Netanyahu aims to justify his decision,” said Bacık.
Israel had long offered statements of regret but balked at a full apology, saying such contrition would cast a defensive maritime action as immoral and draw lawsuits against the navy.
According to a statement put out by Netanyahu's office after the conversation, Erdoğan and Netanyahu “agreed to restore normalization between Israel and Turkey, including the dispatch of ambassadors and the cancellation of legal steps against IDF soldiers.”
In response to a question by reporters, Erdoğan said it was too early to talk about dropping the charges again four Israeli generals who stand accused of playing a role in the death of the Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara ship.
Following the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey reduced its diplomatic contact with Tel Aviv to the level of second secretary and froze all military deals with the powerful Israeli army in response to Tel Aviv's refusal to issue an apology and offer compensation for the loss of life on the aid ship.
Erdoğan made clear that the dispatch of an ambassador to Israel would not take place immediately. “We will see what is put into practice during the process. If they move forward in a promising way, we will make our contribution. Then, there will be an exchange of ambassadors,” said Erdoğan, adding Turkish and Israeli diplomats will hold technical talks over the next few days in Ankara to discuss the compensation package for the relatives of the activists killed in the raid.
On Saturday, Erdoğan also said he is planning to pay a visit to Gaza in April. His remarks confirmed an earlier announcement by Gaza's Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who said the Turkish prime minister would soon visit the Gaza Strip.