flotilla - AP - November 23 2010
Turkish protesters marching in Istanbul against Israel’s takeover of the Gaza flotilla in May. Photo by AP
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Tomorrow will mark two years since Israeli naval commandos boarded a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to the Gaza Strip. The commandos, who had planned to take over the flotilla without firing a shot, were taken by surprise and assaulted aboard one ship, the Mavi Marmara, and rescued themselves only by using deadly force. Nine Turks were killed, and with them, the bilateral relationship between Jerusalem and Ankara, which was already on the rocks because Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan felt insulted by the behavior of his Israeli counterparts, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu.

On the eve of the second anniversary of the raid on the Mavi Marmara, Erdogan sent a reminder to Jerusalem of what he is demanding - that Israel bow its head and apologize. The Turkish state prosecutor filed an indictment against four men who at that time were senior Israel Defense Forces officers: Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, major generals Amos Yadlin and Eliezer Marom, and Avishai Levi, head of the air force intelligence unit. The Turks have asked the court to impose life sentences on all four.

This is a blatantly political move. The Palmer Committee, a UN-sponsored inquiry committee that included Turkish representation, found both countries equally at fault for the regrettable incident. Israel's own inquiry commission, the Turkel Committee, has taken far too long to do its job; it still hasn't finished. But it was quick to exonerate Israel in its interim report of any breach of international law. The state comptroller's report on the flotilla is slated to be published next week, and it, too, will reject the Turks' claims, though it will shed light on the negligence of the top officials, politicians even more than army officers, who dealt with the issue - or, more accurately, failed to deal with it.

The indictment in Istanbul necessitates activity on two fronts, internal and external. Internally, the politicians must give the army full backing, and share in both the responsibility and the consequences. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, for instance, should refuse to visit Turkey as long as the officers subordinate to him are barred from doing so. On the external front, Netanyahu must find the courage, despite the objections of a minority of his cabinet, to sign off on the formula agreed on with America and Turkey: an apology for the operational errors that Israel has already publicly acknowledged. Each side is entitled to read as much or as little as he pleases into those words.

It is unjust to indict Israelis over the Mavi Marmara incident. Nevertheless, that isn't a reason not to act with cool-headed good sense, for that is the price of rehabilitating Israeli-Turkish relations.