On 2 September Turkey expelled its Israeli ambassador as a first response to Israel’s refusal to apologise for the killing last year of nine Turkish activists by Israeli commandos on a ship trying to breach its naval blockade on Gaza.
The sanction followed the premature publication by the New York Times of an oft-postponed United Nations report into the raid, the so-called Palmer Report, named after its head, ex-New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer. It had been set up to mend the rift between the erstwhile allies. Its leak served only to tear them apart.
The Palmer Report contained few surprises. It called the commandos’ action on the Turkish ship “excessive and unreasonable”, condemned the loss of life as “unacceptable” and found Israel’s treatment of passengers on the ship “abusive”.
But, critically, it said Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza was a “legitimate security measureÒê¦ to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with international law”, a conclusion at odds with a 2010 fact-finding mission by the UN Human Rights Council which found both raid and blockade illegal under international law.
Both Israel and Turkey had issues with Palmer. But it was clear which side felt exonerated. Palmer’s judgement on the legality of the blockade proved “Israel has a right to defend itself,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on 4 September. Turkish President Abdullah Gul shrugged. “The report is null and void for us,” he said.
As well as downgrading diplomatic and military ties, Turkey will now support victims of the raid by taking legal action against the responsible Israeli commandos and officials, in both local and foreign courts. It would also challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza at the International Court of Justice.
The descent in Turkish-Israeli relations to their lowest point in 30 years is due to multiple failures: but the principle losers are likely to be Ankara, whose attempted policy of rapprochement with Israel turned out to be barren; and the United States, whose influence over even its allies in the Middle East seems to diminish by the month.
For over a year the Turkish government resisted its own public opinion in search of an Israeli apology. It acted with restraint partly due to American pressure, anxious that its two allies in the Eastern Mediterranean bury their difference. But caution was also counseled by the changes wrought by the popular uprisings in the Arab world.
A year ago Turkey seemed ready to risk confrontation with Israel over the flotilla. It had close ties to Syria and Iraq, and warming relations with Iran. The Arab uprisings have blown those ties away. Ankara is now on the verge of imposing sanctions on Damascus for the brutal suppression of its own people, and opposes Iran and Iraq over their support for Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad.
In such ferment Turkish diplomats believed normalisation with Israel was better than a cold war. They worked tirelessly with their Israeli counterparts to craft carefully worded Israeli apologies for the raid, approved by Netanyahu, only to have them sunk by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon: both ruled out an apology because “honour is a strategic asset,” said Yaalon.
The final straw apparently was Netanyahu’s call last month to postpone publication of the Palmer report for another six months, only to then see it leaked to the New York Times. The Turks are convinced the leak was done by Lieberman and Yaalon to scupper all chance of reconciliation. “Israel isn’t serious,” said a Turkish diplomat.
Turkey had been outmanoeuvred. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli officials think its threat to take the issue of the Gaza blockade to the ICJ is a “pistol firing blanks”. They may be right. It is certainly difficult to see the ICJ issuing an advisory opinion against the blockade after a UN report, set up by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, found it “legal”.
The Obama administration was also outdone. It was the main driver behind the Palmer report, partly to eclipse the earlier UN Human Rights Council report, but mainly to give time for Turkey and Israel to repair ties. Palmer is not about “accountability”, said a UN source. “It’s about getting Turkey and Israel in the same room together”.
Turkey remains a key state for Washington, not only as NATO’s eastern front against Iran (on the day sanctions were declared against Israel, Turkey agreed to deploy an early warning radar as part of a NATO defence system whose aim is to “shield” Europe from Iranian missiles). It is perhaps the pivotal power for building a regional coalition against Syria.
In America’s eyes, Turkey’s spat with Israel over the raid weakened both goals. United States President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Israeli government “to go the extra mile” for peace with Turkey, including by apologising for the deaths of the nine activists, said Turkish and Israeli sources.
Netanyahu initially said this was impossible for reasons of coalition: it was a spurious claim because, although Lieberman opposed any apology, he said he would not leave the government over it. The Israeli premier then told Clinton that with social protests mushrooming in Israeli cities, bowing to Turkish “dictates” would weaken him in Israeli opinion. That’s when Palmer appeared in the New York Times.
Not for the first time Israel seems ready to sacrifice long-term strategic ties on the altar of short-term domestic tactics. Not the first too the Obama administration has had to wipe Israeli spit from its eyes and tell everyone it was rain.
Graham Usher writes for Al Ahram.