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US Pressing Israel and Turkey to Mend Their Relationship

  • Dorian Jones

While Turkey and Israel have seen their once-close relationship deteriorate steadily for the past few years, the Israeli commando raid last May of a Turkish-led flotilla heading for Gaza, in which several Turks were killed, marked a dangerous new low in the two countries' relations. But with US-backed efforts to end the Palestinian conflict restarted, Washington is pressing the two countries to mend their relationship. And there are tentative signs of hope.

Turkish media is reporting that President Abdullah Gul will meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres next week during the United Nations General Assembly session in New York.

This would be the first meeting between such senior Turkish and Israeli officials since May's deadly Navy raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.

Following the raid, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel and summoned Israel's ambassador to Ankara. And, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of terrorism - a charge condemned by the Israeli government.

Alarmed by the collapse of relations between the two countries, Washington has been pressing both sides to resolve their differences.

Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Selim Yenel was part of recent diplomatic delegation that visited Washington.

"When we were in Washington, we told them we have to find a resolution to this matter, if the U.S. can use its positive influences, so much the better. We are looking at ways to resolve this current situation, but we feel if we are friends some one has to apologize, blood has been spilled. Turkish citizens have been killed and I think the best way to resolve this is if Israel apologizes and compensates as friends should do, then we can turn over a new leaf."

There have also been tentative efforts between the countries towards rebuilding diplomatic relations. But Turkish diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz, says divisions within the Israel coalition government pose a major obstacle to such efforts.

"(There was) a meeting (between) an Israeli minister for trade Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and our foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu that was meant to be kept secret. But elements of the Israeli government that did not want this to go ahead, leaked it to the media and also they are now saying it also prevented the formulation of some kind of apology to Turkey over the flotilla incident. So the problem is not Turkey specific or Washington specific but really because of the highly confused domestic political situation in Israel."

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, has long been deeply critical of the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians, in particular its blockade in Gaza.

Though such criticism has drawn support from the Arab community, the break down in Israeli-Turkish relations has caused concern among several Arab leaders.

Turkey's with its strong ties with the United States and Israel along with the Arab world had a unique position in the region, But international relations expert Soli Ozel of Kadir Has University warns the present crisis has severely damaged that status.

"Turkey's relations with Israel are important for the rest of the region as well, because Turkey can do things, because it has good relations or has relations with Israel. And that will narrow Turkey's own space for maneuver as well."

Last July, Syrian President Bashar Assad stressed the importance of Turkey and Israel repairing their relationship.

In the past few years, Ankara had been brokering peace talks between Damascus and Jerusalem. Those efforts are now dormant, because the Israeli government says it doesn't want to deal with Ankara.

With the recent U.S.-backed peace efforts now in full swing, analysts say Ankara could play a future role in bringing in Hamas, which has condemned the talks, to a final settlement. Diplomatic columnist Idiz says although the Turkish government has close ties with Hamas, any role Ankara plays hinges on its relations with Israel.

"I think the reasonable elements in Turkey and Israel understand that these relations have not come out overnight. They have a 50-year background to them. Turkey was the first Islamic country to recognize the state of Israel. It has had diplomatic relations from the very start, so there is a logic to them."

But international relations expert Ozel warns that if Turkey and Israel can patch up relations deep distrust will continue between the two current governments.

"There are problems between Turkey and Israel that are structural, because Israel is seen by Turkey as a destabilizing force and Turkey wishes to have economic integration and stability in the region. And to the extent that Israeli and Turkey projects clash then there will always be room for problems."

With such high stakes, Turkey and Israel may soon come to a realization that it is in their best interests to bury the hatchet.

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