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MIDEAST: Turkey Sails Closer to Israel Ahead of Flotilla

Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Jun 27 2011 (IPS) - Amidst last-minute preparations for a new Peace Flotilla that will try this week to break Israel’s maritime blockade on Gaza, signs of a tentative thawing in relations between Israel and Turkey following a two-year crisis are becoming more and more apparent.

Last week, a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed that Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon was conducting secret talks in Geneva with the director-general of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Feridun Sinirlioglu.

Soon enough, the veil of secrecy was lifted, and the reconciliation process resembled more an exercise in public diplomacy. During a cordial interview accorded to a group of Turkish journalists, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon declared, “Now we need to let go of this mutual blame game as to why trust was lost.”

By “now”, Ayalon meant the general elections in Turkey a fortnight ago. “Political tensions in Turkey have been left behind following the elections,” he asserted.

Israeli diplomats indeed believe that the victory of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his A.K. party at the polls will have a “pragmatic” impact on the stormy relations between the two countries.

Turkey froze its ties with Israel following the devastating Israeli operation on Hamas in Gaza (2008- 2009). Following the popular series “Ayrılık” aired on Turkish television TRT last year which depicted Israeli soldiers as blood-thirsty oppressors of Palestinian rights, Ayalon summoned the Turkish Ambassador and, in blatant violation of diplomatic protocol, had him seated on a lower chair without the customary display of the host’s flag. An Israeli TV crew especially invited recorded the humiliating scene.

The relations came close to rupture in May last year during the first Gaza Peace Flotilla incident, when Israeli naval commandos mounted an assault aboard the M.V. Marmara vessel. Nine Turkish activists from the Islamic Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) were killed in international waters during the botched attack.

Reconciliation has since stumbled over Turkey’s demand that Israel formally “apologise” for the killing of the activists. Israel only agrees to express “regrets”.

The interview by Ayalon, known in Turkey as “the man with the low chair”, was as close as Israeli repentance could get – but over the bashing of the Turkish ambassador. While the top Israeli diplomat insisted that the incident was “a joke blown out of proportion,” one Turkish reporter wanting to “pull the ambassador trick on Ayalon” reportedly requested that the latter sit on a lower chair next to her for a picture. Ayalon complied.

Following last year’s flotilla confrontation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initiated a policy of strengthening security ties with Greece, Turkey’s regional rival. But the volume of bilateral economic trade with the bankrupt country couldn’t possibly reach that enjoyed by Israel with Turkey in the past.

So, Netanyahu was prompt at seizing the opportunity offered by Erdogan’s victory. He congratulated his counterpart, expressing the wish to heal the rift. Israeli diplomats see in the Syrian upheaval another opportunity for a thawing in relations. The whole Turkish foreign policy edifice of realigning Ankara as a strategic axis with Iran, Iraq and Syria seems to be crumbling, they note.

In particular, Syria’s weakening is perceived as good omen, as it could disrupt Israel’s eastern front (Iran, Syria and the Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah).

In contrast with the traditional Israeli weariness of a Muslim Brotherhood surge among its neighbours, former military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin declared last week that the Arab Spring was “good for Israel”. “The fact that Arabs are attacking their own regimes and not Israel is historic,” he added.

With reports from the Turkish town of Guvecci affirming that Syrian troops could be seen quelling the unrest across the border, Turkey fears that such operations might spark a larger exodus of refugees, this time Kurdish, into its territory. Both countries have strong Kurdish minorities.

The concern of a border flare-up with dire regional consequences was echoed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Unless the Syrian forces immediately end their attacks and their provocations that are not only now affecting their own citizens but (raising) the potential of border clashes, then we’re going to see an escalation of conflict in the area,” she declared ominously.

Under U.S. pressure, and “advice” from Turkey, IHH canceled its participation in the new aid flotilla to Gaza, explaining that the decision was aimed mainly at preventing the flotilla from diverting the NGO’s attention from relieving the plight of Syrian refugees.

“The fact that the M.V. Marmara (owned by IHH) won’t be coming (to Gaza for a second time) is a good opportunity for us to renew our ties,” was Ayalon’s genuine reaction in the Turkish daily Hurriyet.

Coincidentally or not, what seems to be the most immediate reason for the current rehabilitation between the two countries is the U.N. inquiry committee’s report on the first flotilla, due within two weeks.

A senior Israeli government official told Haaretz on Sunday that Turkey has asked Israel to agree to a “toned-down version” of the Secretary-General’s report.

The official is quoted as saying that Ankara is “very worried” about the “harsh criticism of Turkey” expected in the report. An Israeli acquiescence to the request would constitute part of a “package deal” aimed at putting behind the flotilla affair between them.

Meanwhile, the latent protagonists of the second Peace Flotilla are conducting last rehearsals and simulation drills.

In Greece and in other Mediterranean ports, activists exercise in non-violent resistance to masked commandos storming aboard their ships with rifles, stun guns, tear gas and water cannons, trying to imagine helicopters hovering overhead and warships encircling them.

In Israeli territorial waters, navy commandos practise the takeover of vessels – this time in a manner not openly confrontational.

In the end, the thawing of relations between the two regional powers will come down to the outcome of the upcoming peace flotilla.

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