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Effort Underway to Restore Relationship Between Israel, Turkey

Turkish ship Mavi Marmara - on which last year's killings took place and which withdrew from this month's attempt to break Israel's economic blockade of Gaza - is pictured under maintenance in a shipyard in Istanbul, May 30, 2011 (file photo)

The United Nations is expected to publish its report next week on last year's killing by Israeli forces of nine Turks aboard a ship seeking to break its economic embargo of Gaza Strip. Analysts say the conclusions of the report could further strain relations between the two nations as efforts are being pushed by the international community to restore the once-strong ties between the two.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reported to have pressed the issue of Turkey and Israel mending relations when she met recently with her Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu. The European Union also seems to have also jumped on the bandwagon.

Richard Howitt, spokesman for Turkish affairs for the socialist bloc in European parliament, said reconciliation would provide a positive impetus in the Middle East.

"I don't put the blame on Turkey on this issue. But if there is an opportunity for Turkey to get back to a position where it can play a brokering role from within Israel and from within the Palestinian and Arab side, that can only be a good thing," he said.

Congratulations sent

Last month Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a letter of congratulations to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan for successful re-election. In that letter, he also expressed the hope of a rapprochement.

Ankara appeared to respond when the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, on which last year's killings took place, withdrew from this month's attempt to break Israel's economic blockade of Gaza.

But Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said Turkey's bottom line has not changed.

"We never reject any kind hand which has extended to us. That's why there has, in the past, been some contacts," said Unal. "And we continue to work on that. But our position on that issue has not changed. It's compensation to the people who were killed on that day, and an apology."

Formal apology needed

Turkish political columnist Asli Aydintasbas said the word "apology" lies now at the center of resolving the dispute.

"Apology is very difficult for the Netanyahu government, and it continues to to be so, and Turkish officials tell me they feel the Israelis have come very close to an apology several time over the past four or five months," said Aydintasbas. "But in the end, because of problems in the Israeli coalition, they back away from the demand. Knowing the prime minister's personality and knowing the importance of this issue, and the fact it has so publicly been stated, I don't see how Turkey can accept anything short of an apology."

Political scientist Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University said the growing instability in Syria, as well as the wider region, gives the hope that a solution may be found.

"They're a lot closer than a year ago because the Americans are taking this very seriously. It seems to me we will have one, but the Israelis are extremely reluctant and they may always slip," said Ozel. "There lies a powerful struggle between Turkey and Israel over who is going to be the top honcho in the eastern Mediterranean. But they need one another on dealing with the fallout from Arab Spring, especially Syria."

Powerful incentives involved

Erdogan's close ties with the Hamas government in Gaza also offers the Israeli government powerful incentives, said columnist Aydintasbas. She said that influence could help break the current deadlock on a variety key issues, even working for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israel soldier held by Hamas for the last five years.

"They are willing to use their leverage to bring Hamas to a more democratic position, and to convince Hamas to recognize Israel," said Aydintasbas. "I have heard the prime minister is willing to work to get Hamas to release Gilad Shalit. But he is not going to lift a finger until there is an apology from Israel."

The Turkish prime minister is anxious to take an increasingly active role in the Middle East. That role can only be enhanced by a new revival in its relations with Israel. There are now powerful incentives on both sides to repair their relations, although the word apology still remains a major obstacle.

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