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Relations Between Turkey, Israel Blowing Cold

  • Dorian Jones

A banner depicting the faces of the nine men killed, displayed on the Mavi Marmara ship, on its returns, in Istanbul, Turkey, 26 Dec 2010

A banner depicting the faces of the nine men killed, displayed on the Mavi Marmara ship, on its returns, in Istanbul, Turkey, 26 Dec 2010

Tensions between former close allies Turkey and Israel have flared up again, with the Turkish foreign minister accusing the Israeli government of not being sincere in wanting to resolve current bilateral tensions. Relations all but collapsed last May, when Israeli forces killed nine Turks when they seized a ship, the Mavi Marmara, which was seeking to break Israel's economic blockade of Gaza. Emotions continue to run high over the deaths.

"Welcome home Mavi Marmara. Welcome the ship that carried our martyrs" a man shouts as the vessel finally returned back to Istanbul on Sunday.

Around 10,000 people turned up to greet the ship which until now had been held by the Israeli forces. The rally quickly turned into an anti-Israeli demonstration.

"Murdering Israelis, country of treachery," shouted a protester.

The Mavi Marmara was leading a flotilla of ships seeking to break Israel's economic blockade of Gaza. Nine Turks died when Israeli forces seized it. Even though the incident took place last May, anger against Israel is still brewing.

One women's view was typical of those who came to welcome the ship home. "This is just a small meeting to warn Israel," she says. "If they are to make a move or threaten us, they should know that there are many people that they should be scared of. We are not here for nothing."

This week, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu strongly attacked the Israeli government, accusing it of being insincere in wanting to resolve the crisis over the killings. Earlier this month there had been hopes of a resolution when Turkey sent firefighting planes to Israel to help put out a deadly forest fire. But diplomatic efforts faltered on Ankara's demand for an apology over the flotilla incident.

Diplomatic correspondent Semih Idiz says rapprochement efforts are being complicated by the fact that a general election is only six months away. "Turkey is in an election environment and all of this plays into the public, and provides room for populist policies, which then reflect themselves back on to interstate government relations," said Idiz.

Foreign Minister Davutoglu even questioned whether Israel would have helped Turkey so promptly if it had faced a similar disaster like the forest fire. That drew an angry response from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who pointed out the relief Israel sent to Turkey after a devastating quake in 1999.

Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out any apology, saying they would only be prepared to express regret for loss of life. Mr. Netanyahu claimed an apology could be interpreted as an admission of guilt that could open the way to the prosecution of the soldiers involved in an international tribunal.

But political columnist Mehmet Ali Birand says Israel fails to understand the public anger, especially amongst the country's religious conservative population.

"Killing nine Turks, people are saying they are taking us for Arabs," he said. "What is this Israel? What is this Israel? That was the reaction. So from that point of view, the Turkish prime minister had to insist on the apology and on the indemnities."

Diplomatic correspondent Idiz says diplomatic efforts are being frustrated by the rivalry between the Israeli foreign minister and prime minister.

"The highly confused domestic political situation we have in Israel where we have a right-wing government , where elements of the coalition are vying with each other in terms being right wing," he said.

Although efforts to rebuild relations appear deadlocked, Idiz claims on both sides there are those who believe it serves neither countries interest to prolong the present tensions. Washington too, which is a close ally with both countries, is putting pressure on them to settle their differences. But for now, at least, observers say domestic considerations in both countries seem to be trumping any efforts to see eye-to-eye.

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