Turkey may expel Israeli ambassador in wake of Gaza flotilla report
Warning comes after Israel fails to apologize for raid on Turkish-sponsored flotilla despite threat of sanctions; leaking of report further raises tensions between Turkey and Israel.
The findings of a UN probe into Israel's deadly raid on a 2010 flotilla to Gaza, which were leaked to The New York Times Thursday, have further raised tensions between Israel and Turkey, and senior Foreign Ministry officials warned that Turkey could respond to the report's publication by expelling the Israeli ambassador and scaling back diplomatic relations.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Thursday that Friday's official release of the Palmer Report constitutes Israel's last chance to apologize for its raid on the Turkish-sponsored flotilla and warned of consequences, including sanctions, should Israel continue to refuse to apologize.
Unless there is an Israeli apology, "we will put Plan B into play," Davutoglu said in a joint interview to the Thursday's Today Zaman and Hurriyet dailies. He said Turkey intended to impose sanctions, "which both Israel and other international parties are aware of."
Referring to Israel's request for another delay in the report's publication, he said that Ankara "cannot accept another six-month extension."
Senior Israeli officials said Thursday that Israel would not apologize for the raid and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reiterated this to the U.S. administration in the past few days.
The sanctions Turkey is planning against Israel include scaling back the level of diplomatic representation in both countries from ambassador to first secretary. This means Israel's ambassador to Turkey, Gabby Levy, and his deputy, Ella Afek, would be expelled.
Turkey is also planning a diplomatic and legal campaign against Israel in the United Nations, and will help the families of those killed and injured in the raid to file lawsuits against Israel in courts worldwide.
In addition, Ankara is threatening to halt trade between Turkey and Israel, which totals in the billions of dollars.
Davutoglu said Turkey had agreed to delay the report's publication several times because Israel wanted to negotiate over the Turks' demand for an apology.
"We patiently waited for Israel to decide. It seems Israel has some difficulty in making a decision," he said.
According to Friday'sToday Zaman, Israel and Turkey were in fact well on the way to agreeing on an apology - the focal point of the dispute between the former allies for the past year - when Israel "stepped back" at the last minute due to what the paper called "intra-coalition squabbles."
Turkey is expected to issue a statement rejecting the Palmer Report's findings. The Turks are angry with the report's conclusion that Israel's naval blockade of Gaza is legal under international law, as well as its finding that Turkey did not do enough to stop the flotilla.
Israel is very pleased with the report, especially for deeming the Gaza blockade legal and saying the soldiers acted in self-defense, Israeli sources said.
Senior Foreign Ministry officials said the Turkish threat to impose sanctions on Israel stems from Ankara's frustration over the Palmer committee's adoption of many of Israel's positions on the flotilla.
But a defense source familiar with both the UN investigation and Israel's negotiations with Turkey over an apology expressed concern over the report's findings Thursday, noting that it includes harsh criticism of what it terms excessive use of force by Israeli commandos during the raid.
The committee was shown the pathology reports on the bodies of the nine Turkish nationals who were killed in the raid, and these indicated that considerable force was used, the official said. The photographs activists took of soldiers and posted on the Internet are likely to increase the chance of future legal action against them, he added.
Legal action may also be taken against senior Israeli officials who took part in approving the raid, including Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, then-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and navy commander Adm. Eliezer Marom, the official warned.
But one senior Israeli source said the report's findings "ultimately justify Israel's claims about the blockade's legality and the threat to IDF soldiers during the flotilla takeover."
The report also upheld Israel's right to search the ship and said Israel's soldiers encountered a violent and organized response that forced them to use force in self-defense, he added. In contrast, "the report criticizes the flotilla organizers and says the decision to break the blockade was dangerous, lacked judgment and could lead to unnecessary escalation," he said.
Netanyahu has instructed his ministers not to make any comments on relations with Turkey. A senior Israeli official said the Foreign Ministry will publish an official response Friday as soon as the Palmer Report is officially released.