Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized Friday, March 22 for the botched 2010 Israeli raid that killed 8 Turks and one Turkish-American and severely damaged Israeli-Turkish relations. In a call placed to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Netanyahu personally apologized to the PM, assuring him that the deaths were not intentional and expressing regret for what happened.
This was an unexpected development coming near the end of President Obama’s first trip to Israel, for which expectations were low. President Obama is not popular in Israel or the region as of late. The call was made from Ben Gurion Airport moments before President Obama was to leave for Jordan. If, as some have reported, President Obama brokered the call, it represents a diplomatic triumph for a trip that had received positive reviews but achieved little of substance up until then. Erdogan accepted the apology and the two countries have agreed to restore normal diplomatic relations. Erdogan also agreed to cancel legal proceedings against Israeli Defense Force soldiers, while for his part Netanyahu promised to provide compensation to the families of those who died.
The bitter dispute stems from an incident on May 31st, 2010. In the early morning hours in international waters, Israeli forces intercepted a six-ship flotilla of international activists named the "Gaza Freedom Flotilla" who were attempting to break the blockade of Gaza. The effort had been organized by the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, as well as the Free Gaza Movement, as it was carrying humanitarian aid for Gaza Palestinians.
When the flotilla was intercepted, five of the six ships passively resisted. But the Mavi Marmara, however, was a different story. The Mavi Marmara was a Turkish ship carrying 600 passengers, including 40 "hardcore" activists. When IDF forces boarded the vessel a melee ensued with activists wielding knives and iron bars. Three IDF soldiers were quickly captured and seriously injured, one with a knife lodged in his abdomen. In response, the IDF opened fire on the activists. What happened next is not completely known, but in the ensuing chaos, nine passengers were killed.
The UN launched an investigation by its three member Human Rights Council (successor to the UN Commission on Human Rights), which released its report in September 2010. Israel regards the council as biased against it, and worked instead with another UN panel whose report was published a year later. The council’s report was highly critical of the soldiers' actions, concluding that they violated the Geneva Convention and further deeming the blockade of Gaza as illegal under international law. The second UN panel headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, with which Israel did cooperate, released its report in September of 2011. Though it acknowledged the legitimacy of the blockade and noted the recklessness of the activists, the Palmer Report laid primary responsibility for the bloodshed at Israel’s feet. It noted forensic evidence that at least four of the dead had been shot in the back of the head.
Turkey swiftly responded by recalling its ambassador to Israel and expelling the Israeli ambassador, downgrading bilateral contacts to lower level officials. It also cancelled joint military exercises that had been planned with Israel. Even after the report, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, reiterated his government’s refusal to apologize, citing the report’s validation of the blockade.
Although Turkey has always been critical of Israeli handling of the Palestinian conflict, Israel and Turkey have normally had a relatively close relationship. Turkey is Israel’s sixth-largest trading partner and Israel’s closest Middle Eastern ally. In fact, out of 57 Muslim countries, only ten recognize Israel, and Turkey was the first to do so by decades, in 1949. The 2010 flotilla raid severely damaged that relationship, leaving Israel almost completely isolated for nearly three years in a region where allies are hard to come by. This makes the restoration of ties all the more important for Israel. Of course, Israel wasn’t the only country to benefit from today’s breakthrough. Turkey has been seeking for some time to improve bilateral ties with Israel because they have shared concerns, such as fears of the fallout from the Syrian Civil War spilling over their borders. In fact, Turkey spent much of last year trying to avoid being sucked into that conflict.
And finally, the phone call represents a much needed piece of good news for the Obama Administration, which for the past several weeks has looked increasingly helpless in the face of the sequester. After almost three years of trying to mend fences between two strategically important allies, President Obama’s visit to Israel today can be seen as a public relations success. Recognizing that he was largely "talking over the heads" of government officials and directly to the Israeli people, he has now proven that he can influence the political leadership as well.