Just before President Barack Obama boarded Air Force One to leave Israel on a windy Friday afternoon last month, he made a dramatic announcement. Flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama announced that Israel had apologized to Turkey for the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard a flotilla trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip and that the two countries would resume ties soon.
But since then, nothing has happened. An Israeli delegation was supposed to visit Ankara this week to discuss the issue of compensation, an issue Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has drawn as a deal-breaker for rapprochement. Israeli press reports said that Israel was offering $100,000 for each of those killed, while Turkey was demanding $1 million. Turkey’s Vice President said the amount has yet to be determined.“The Israeli delegation was due to leave on Thursday for talks but we received a message from the Turks they want to delay that to the 22nd and of course we complied,” a senior Israeli official involved in the issue told The Media Line on condition of anonymity. “We will be discussing all the issues raised in the phone conversation (between Prime Ministers Erdogan and Netanyahu), normalization of relations, and the exchange of ambassadors. We are talking about a process of improving relations with Turkey.”
In Turkey, analysts said the Israeli apology came as a welcome surprise.
“It is being seen as a victory here,” Barcin Yinanc, columnist and op-ed editor of Hurriyet Daily News told The Media Line. “The government took a principled stand and got even more than they had asked for.”
But she said that major differences between Israel and Turkey remain over the Palestinian issue.
“The Turks believe that Israel’s policy is poisonous to the Middle East and is not sustainable,” she said.
From Israel’s side, some said that Netanyahu, under pressure from Obama, had caved-in by apologizing. They said the Israeli soldiers only used force once they were attacked, and that the apology and compensation is a bad precedent for the future.
But others, like former Israeli ambassador Gabby Levy, said Israel should have apologized long ago. He also said repairing ties will not happen immediately.
“It should have been done long before. But at the same time the Israeli government should approach it carefully and shouldn’t raise too high expectation for a speedy process of reconciliation,” Levy told The Media Line. “It is going to take some time. We will never be able to get back to the level of warm relations we had previously.”
Levy said that Turkey had previously served as an intermediary for negotiations between Israel and Syria, but he did not think a similar role would be possible in the near future.
Until the flotilla incident, Israel and Turkey had agreements for military cooperation worth billions of dollars. Israeli defense companies, for example, modernized Turkish Air Force F-4 Phantoms and F-5 jets in a deal worth $900 million.
Turkey was also a popular tourist destination for Israelis, who do not need visas to enter. In 2008, some 560,000 Israelis visited Turkey, according to Israeli tourism officials. Those numbers declined sharply after the flotilla incident, and Israeli tourists turned to Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Croatia.
Israeli tourism professionals doubt that waves of Israelis will return to Turkey, at least in the near future.
“The resorts in Turkey are beautiful and the people on the Turkish coast of Antalya are friendly,” Mark Feldman, the owner of Ziontours in Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “But Israelis are still hesitant, and the prices have gone up significantly. A few years ago we could offer packages for $99 – now summer packages are going for $599, the same as to Greece.”
Yet, Turkey and Israel still share interests in preventing the spread of radical Islam in the Middle East. Both are threatened by the growing fragmentation of Syria and the chance that Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Lebanon-based Hizbullah, Iran’s terrorist proxy. And both fear the growing power of Iran and the chance that Iran could become a nuclear power.
It is not clear how long the negotiations over compensation will take. If an agreement is reached, Israel will pay the money into a Turkish-government fund which will then disburse it to the victims’ families. The next step will be appointing ambassadors and re-staffing the embassies in both countries. That could take months, but it will take even longer before confidence will be restored.