JERUSALEM – Regarding Turkey, the bad diplomatic news for Israel just keeps getting worse.
First Turkey announced it was slashing the level of its diplomatic ties with Israel to the second secretary level, giving the senior Israeli embassy staff 48 hours to leave the country. Turkey also said it was suspending all military ties with Israel.
Next the Turkish Embassy in Washington vowed that Turkey would pursue legal action against Israeli soldiers and officials who were involved in the deadly 2010 raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish ship Mavi Marmara. Then 40 Israeli travelers on a Tel Aviv-to-Istanbul flight were separated from the other passengers upon landing and subjected to humiliating searches.
Turkey’s actions came as the United Nations released the report of its Palmer committee, which investigated Israel’s actions during its May 2010 interception of a flotilla trying to break its blockade of Gaza. Israeli troops encountered violent resistance when they tried to board the Mavi Marmara, and the ensuing battle left eight Turkish citizens and one dual Turkish-American citizen dead.
The Palmer report found that Israel’s blockade of Gaza was legal and that Israeli commandos needed to use force as they came under attack on the Mavi Marmara. The report also found, however, that Israel used excessive force when boarding the ship.
Turkey has demanded an apology for the deaths of its citizens, but Israel has refused.
“We need not apologize for the fact that naval commandos defended their lives against an assault by violent IHT activists,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet this week, using the initials of the Turkish charity that sponsored the Mavi Marmara.
“We need not apologize for the fact that we acted to stop the smuggling of weapons to Hamas, a terrorist organization that has already fired over 10,000 missiles, rockets and mortar rounds at our civilians. We need not apologize for the fact that we acted to defend our people, our children and our communities.”
Netanyahu then made a last-ditch attempt to head off Turkey’s decision to limit ties with Israel.
“I reiterate that the State of Israel expresses regret over the loss of life. I also hope that a way will be found to overcome the disagreement with Turkey,” he said. “Israel has never wanted a deterioration in its relations with Turkey; neither is Israel interested in such a deterioration now.”
The crisis in ties with Turkey could have far-reaching implications for Israel. Severing trade between Israel and Turkey, which is more than $3 billion annually, would have a negative impact on the Israeli economy.
Diplomatically, the crisis could badly affect Israel’s relationships with Egypt and Jordan. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Egypt this week to discuss deepening that country’s strategic relationship with Turkey.
The trip came amid growing opposition in Egypt to the longstanding peace treaty with Israel. Egypt’s military leaders could come under increasing pressure to follow Turkey and recall their ambassador from Israel.
“Erdogan will say to the Egyptians, ‘What are you doing for the Palestinians?’ ” Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, told JTA. “Egyptians will say, ‘Turkey is not even Arab, and they expelled the Israeli ambassador.’ It will add to the public pressure.”
Liel believes there is even a chance of a military confrontation between Israel and Turkey if, as expected, Israel signs a deal to export liquid natural gas to Cyprus, an island nation that is tensely divided between Greek and Turkish sectors.
“Those vessels will need to go through the Mediterranean, and Turkey will do whatever it can to stop them,” Liel said, adding that Turkey has 40,000 soldiers in the Turkish part of Cyprus.