ANKARA, July 6--The June skirmishes and tough rhetoric between Ankara and Jerusalem gave way last week to backdoor diplomacy, whose aim is to find common ground for reconciliation, while saving face for the two protagonists of the Freedom Flotilla drama.
In a meeting on Wednesday in Brussels, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the Israeli Minister for Industry, Trade and Labor, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, tried to identify ways for mending the relationship between Turkey and Israel, which is at its lowest ever since the seizing on May 31 of a Turkish ship by Israel's navy. The ship was part of a flotilla transporting Turkish and international activists determined to brake the naval blockade imposed since 2007 on the Port of Gaza by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and to bring humanitarian aid to the region, populated by 1.5 million Palestinians.
The search of the ship by the Israeli military, looking for weapons, was met with resistance from the passengers and resulted in the death of nine Turks and one U.S. citizen of Turkish origin. The vessel had been freighted by Turkish non-governmental organization IHH, which has been rated since 2007 as terrorist by Jerusalem.
The incident triggered the ire of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has persistently demanded a full apology to Turkey by the Jewish state, an international inquiry, and payment of damages by Israel to the families of the dead and injured. But Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has not been forthcoming. Israel has begun its own investigation, involving respected civilian judges and two international observers.
Meanwhile Turkey has imposed unilateral sanctions on Israel by suspending trading and closing its airspace to the Israeli Air Force (IAF), which in practice means suspension of the military cooperation treaty signed by the two states in 1996.
At the Brussels meeting, Davutoglu reiterated Erdogan's demands and on July 4he added further trading threats in the form of an ultimatum, in case of non-compliance by Israel. According to Turkish sources, Ben Eliezer promised compensation to victim's families as soon as the inquiry is completed. This was subsequently denied by Netanyahu, whose Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, had been kept uninformed of the meeting, which was intended to be secret. Lieberman has taken a radical position against Ankara's arguments since the outbreak of the crisis and on Monday categorically excluded any yielding of his government to Turkish pressures.
Netanyahu's decision to bypass his FM, at the risk of jeopardizing his government's coalition, was apparently motivated by Lieberman's stance and by the fact that the FM's number two, Danny Ayalon, had in January humiliated in public the Turkish ambassador to Jerusalem during a TV show, making both unsuitable interlocutors. Ben Eliezer, an advocate of good ties with Turkey, had as a result volunteered to meet Davutoglu.
Netanyahu was also under time pressure to send a truce signal to Ankara, ahead of his trip this week to Washington. The U.S. State Department has been active throughout the month of June in attempting to broker a pact between the parties. The vote of Turkey on June 9 at the United Nation's Security Council against new sanctions proposed by the United States to stop Iran's nuclear armament is worrying Washington about the balance of power in the Middle East, at a time both it and Israel appear to be determined to take decisive action, should the sanctions do not produce the desired effects on Tehran.
President Obama has been busy testing the intentions of the potential allies and resistors in the event of a muscled initiative against Iran. In a private meeting last week with the Saudi King Abdullah, he officially discussed peace commitments for the Middle East and Pakistan. A few days earlier, information had leaked to the Israeli press that the IAF was negotiating with the Saudi national security a narrow air strip and ground facilities for use in case of attack by Israeli aircraft against Iran.
These reports coincided with other information from Egyptian sources that at least 12 U.S. Navy vessels, part of the USS Truman Carrier Strike Group, and an Israeli war ship had crossed end of May the Suez Canal in the direction of the Persian Gulf.
In a personal meeting with Erdogan, Obama at the end of June in Toronto warned the Turkish PM to drop the demands for an international probe of the Flotilla incident, as it could be "a double edged sword", according to a report published on Saturday by a generally well-informed Arab daily. The U.S. President also urged Turkey to settle its differences with Israel.
In the current climate in the Middle East, Ankara and Jerusalem need one another. Turkey's recently proclaimed emancipation from the West and its vocation to become a regional power in the Middle East, is exciting the Arab street, where Erdogan and Davutoglu are now home heroes.
This does not necessarily please the rulers of the states in the same geography. Turkey's rationale for becoming influential in their affairs has so far been its privileged relationship with Israel. Without such partnership, Ankara looks as trying to dominate the Arab world, which gained independence from the Ottomans in 1918, while offering no value in return.
At the same time, Israel needs the Turks to dissuade the Arabs from any temptation to erase the Jewish state from the map, as Islamist extremists vow to do. More timely, however, Israel counts on Turkey's cooperation, or at least tolerance, for the use of its airspace by the IAF in case of hostilities with Iran, estimate defense experts in the region. The current breakdown in the military collaboration between the two countries has forced Israel to seek alternative air routes, through Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, none of which is as operationally advantageous to the IAF as the Turkish solution.
Erdogan's position is likely to be very sensitive on this last point. Turkey in 2003 refused to let the American troops cross its land to invade Iraq, a Muslim state. The same rationale may prevail in a punitive action against Iran, with which Turkey has not had border disputes or hostilities for centuries.