Turkish and Israeli smiles feeling the strain

By bne IntelliNews March 25, 2013

bne -

Breaking a three year stand off between the two countries, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call March 22 for the 2010 deaths of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists. However, the pair appears some way from a full detente, denting somewhat the boost for the Turkish leader's claims of regional leadership.

Netanyahu apologized for the botched raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010 that saw Israeli troops board the Mavi Marmara amidst a fire fight, wrecking what had previously been a strong - but deteriorating - relationship. Turkey demanded an apology as a condition for restoring ties. Netanyahu had until now refused to apologize, saying Israeli soldiers acted in self-defense, but that changed with his expression of regret late last week.

Following up the news, Israel said on March 24 that the move was prompted by the need to work with Turkey on limiting the dangers of regional spillover of the civil war in Syria. Erdogan, set to travel to Palestine next month, claimed the day before that it was a sign of Turkey's growing clout in the region. However, he sought to lower expectations over the weekend.

In fact, the "deal" was brokered by President Barack Obama, who clearly would like to have the two strong allies of the US neighboring war-torn Syria at least start talking to one another again. Turkey and Israel were once strong allies but relations began to decline after Erdogan - who ploughs a conservative Islamic furrow - became prime minister in 2003. Erdogan's campaign to make Turkey a regional powerhouse has brought him into confrontation with Israel.

The Turkish PM looked to make as much currency from the situation as he could on March 23. "We are entering a new period in both Turkey and the region," he claimed, according to Reuters. "We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past."

The next day, Israeli officials said that Syria is the clear motivation for the move. Netanyahu's national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, told reporters: "Between us and Turkey is a country that is falling apart and that has chemical weapons," according to AP. Israel has expressed concern that Syria's chemical arsenal could fall into the hands of militants.

However, it didn't take long for the initial elation over the "deal" to dwindle. Erdogan sounded a note of caution on March 24, noting that relations with Israel will not be normalized until Jerusalem follows its words with action. "We have said that an apology must be offered, compensation must be paid, and the embargo on Palestine must be lifted. Normalization will not happen as long as these are not fulfilled," he said, according to Hurriyet Daily News.

"If there is quiet, the processes easing the lives of Gazan residents will continue," Amidror said. "But if there is Katyusha [rocket] fire, then these moves will be slowed and even stopped and, if necessary, even reversed. "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," Amidror told Israel's Army Radio. "We do not intend to give up on our right to respond to what happens in Gaza because of the agreement with the Turks."

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