Turkey and Israel are set for a diplomatic showdown with the scheduled publication of a United Nations report this Friday into the killing last year by Israeli security forces of nine Turkish citizens on a boat attempting to break Israel's economic blockade of the Gaza Strip. The release of the U.N. report has been repeatedly delayed to give time to diplomatic efforts to reconcile the two formerly close allies.
Since last year's killing of nine Turkish citizens by Israeli forces, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called on Israel to apologize and compensate the families of those killed. Equally resolute, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said there is nothing to apologize for. The impasse has severely damaged bilateral relations of the formerly close allies. But Erdogan has warned things could get a lot worse.
He says unless Israel offers an apology, pays compensation, and removes the embargo against the Gaza Strip, it is not possible for Turkey-Israel relations to improve. Erdogan says that from now on, Turkey as well as the families will take some steps, so a new phase will be beginning.
The expected publication this Friday of the U.N. report into the killings is the deadline set by Ankara for its demands to be met. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu earlier this month said that both Washington and Jerusalem are aware of the sanctions Turkey is prepared to impose against Israel. International relations expert Soli Ozel says Ankara has options.
"Turkey can lower the level of its relations in Israel, pushing for the recognition of Palestinian statehood," said Ozel. "It can try to sue [the] Israeli military and politicians in international courts. Whether they can pull this off or not, I don't know, which is why I think the Americans are so adamant that things don't get out of hand."
According to both Turkish and Israeli media reports, a proposal by the U.S. for what is described as a softened Israeli apology in exchange for normalizing relations has so far been rejected by Jerusalem. Diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz says such an intervention is an indication that Washington is aware of Turkey's growing importance in the increasingly volatile Middle East. That importance, Idiz claims, is a key factor behind Ankara maintaining its tough stance towards Jerusalem.
"We are dealing with a very different kind of environment now in the Middle East," said Idiz. "Turkey has a greater presence, if not with some regimes, at least with the people in the region. And so it is not so vital for Turkey as it might have been in the past to have good relations with Israel."
But despite deteriorating diplomatic relations, bilateral trade has continued to flourish. International relations expert Ozel believes whatever happens, trade will be left largely untouched.
"Trade embargo, I doubt it," said Because the trade volume is almost $3 billion between the two countries, non-military. So it will hurt some of the constituents of Erdogan as well."
Trade is still a card Israel can play. The Turkish military is urgently buying sophisticated equipment in the face of a resurgence in fighting against the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. At the top of its list are drones, of which Israel is a main supplier. As alternative provider the U.S. is tied up due to its own military demands, Ankara may have a vested interest in at least maintaining trade relations with Israel. However, political columnist Asla Aydintasbas says Erdogan has limited room to maneuver.
"Knowing [the] prime minister's personality and knowing the importance of this issue for Turkey, I don't see how Turkey can accept anything short of an apology. And frankly there is not a word, which is an apology in English or an apology in Turkish, but is different in Hebrew. It is just what it is," said the columnist.
International diplomatic efforts are expected to intensify to find a compromise, as Turkey's deadline for its demands to be met nears.