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MENAFN - Arab News - 28/02/2013

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(MENAFN - Arab News) DESPITE the widespread belief that ties between Israel and Turkey are virtually nonexistent, the Israeli and Turkish officials have, of late, held a series of meetings, the most recent three weeks ago, according to Israeli officials who confirmed media reports in both countries.

The goal has been to find a formula for an apology acceptable to Ankara for the 2010 "Gaza flotilla affair" in which Israeli troops killed nine Turkish citizens during a violent clash on a ship trying to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

"There's an ongoing dialogue and we're speaking to them and trying to find a formula that they will accept," a senior Israeli official said on condition of anonymity. "They're upset with us and we believe that is not fair."

The Turkish weekly Radikal reported that Israel may apologize to Turkey for "operational errors" during the raid on the Mavi Marmara in advance of President Barack Obama's visit to the Middle East next month. He has pressed for reconciliation between the two American allies.

Turkey has demanded a formal apology for Israel's conduct during the flotilla. In May 2010, Israeli naval commandos boarded the Turkish-flagged ship, which set out to break the blockade Israel implemented when Hamas took control of the Gaza in 2007 in order to prevent materials that could be used militarily from falling into Hamas' hands. The soldiers encountered physical resistance and nine Turkish citizens were killed in the clashes that ensued. Turkey insists those killed were civilian passengers while Israel does not agrre. In addition to the apology, Turkey is demanding compensation for the families of those killed, and an end to Israel's naval blockade of Gaza.

Israel has expressed "regret" that innocent civilians were killed but has refused to "apologize," saying the soldiers were attacked when they boarded the ship. A United Nations commission also accused Israel of using disproportionate force.

"In the past, some parts of the Israeli government including Defense Minister Ehud Barak and to some extent even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were ready to go pretty far to apologize to Turkey," Dror Zeevi, an expert on Turkey at Ben Gurion University said. "But this was blocked by others in the government, especially former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman."
Lieberman is currently on hiatus as foreign minister as he faces charges of corruption and Netanyahu is enmeshed in efforts to form a new coalition.

"It is possible that the new Israeli government will go even further towards an apology," he said.

In another sign of possible reconciliation, Israel this month supplied advanced electronic warfare systems to the Turkish Air Force. It was the first exchange of military equipment with Turkey since the raid in 2010.

Despite the tensions, economic ties continue. Turkey is Israel's sixth largest export destination and the level of trade between the two countries rose to 2 billion dollars in 2011. Israel supplies Turkey with high-tech defense equipment. Israel buys Turkish military boots and uniforms as well as vegetables and other processed foods.

On the diplomatic level, the relations are handled by second secretaries, the lowest level of diplomatic representatives. Turkey's ambassador to Israel was recalled after the flotilla affair and Israel's ambassador to Turkey was asked to leave Ankara.

But money can sometimes override politics. In this case, Israel's recent discoveries of huge quantities of natural gas off its coast could push the two countries to move beyond their differences. Earlier this month, Israel proposed building a pipeline under the Mediterranean Sea to southern Turkey. The pipeline would be used to market the natural gas to Western Europe, and would cost an estimated 2 billion. It would also ensure Turkey a cheap supply of natural gas.

Before the flotilla, Israel and Turkey had extremely close relations. As a large Muslim country, Israel especially valued that relationship, with the Turks often functioning as mediator between Israel and the Islamic world, and in particular, with the Hamas movement. Now, Turkey has been frozen out of any mediating role.

Israel and Turkey are both threatened by the ongoing chaos in Syria. Both countries share borders with Syria, and both are concerned that violence could spill over into their borders.

While relations between Israel and Turkey are likely to remain tense, analysts say better ties would benefit both sides.

"I think the Turkish government has come to the conclusion that some kind of working relationship with Israel is necessary, and Israel is certainly interested in that," said Zeevi.


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