Activists flotilla
Activists holding placards on the Stefano Chiarini ship in Corfu during a protest against the banning of the flotilla. Photo by Reuters
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Three days before a UN report on last year's deadly flotilla raid is due, Israeli and Turkish officials were engaged in feverish behind-the-scenes diplomacy in an effort to mend the bilateral ties that ruptured after the death of nine passengers aboard a Turkish ship.

The activists were killed by Israeli naval commandos who encountered violent resistance when attempting to keep the vessel from breaching Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

A meeting is scheduled for today in New York between Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon and senior Turkish officials. A government source in Jerusalem said the United States has been exerting heavy pressure on both sides to work out their differences by the time the report comes out Thursday.

If a compromise is not reached soon, the UN report will be released as is, and bilateral ties will likely be frozen for a long period, the source said. If a compromise is reached, the report will be reworded and toned down.

"We are at a critical stage," the source said. "If things aren't worked out, the report will be released and everybody loses."

The UN committee reviewing the events of May 31, 2010, has sent a draft of its report to both Israel and Turkey.

According to a senior Israeli diplomatic source who read the draft, the committee concluded that the blockade of Gaza was legal, but that the naval commandos who seized the Mavi Marmara had used undue force.

Turkey, meanwhile, is concerned about the committee's apparent criticism regarding Ankara's role in the flotilla, particularly its ties with the group that organized it - IHH, which has links to Hamas.

Turkey has asked Israel to agree to have the report toned down as part of a deal meant to reconcile the two countries and bring the Turkish ambassador back to Tel Aviv.

The heart of the dispute remains Turkey's demand that Israel apologize for its role in the events.

"Diplomats are working like linguists to find a word that will sound like an apology in Turkish, but won't sound like an apology in Hebrew," the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported yesterday.

Meanwhile, efforts to get this year's flotilla to sea were stymied again late yesterday afternoon when the Greek coast guard intercepted the Canadian ship Tahrir, 15 minutes after it left the Crete port of Agios Nikolaos.

A coast guard vessel that had been guarding the Tahrir in port was blocked from preventing the ship's departure by two flotilla participants who deliberately rowed kayaks around it.

When the coast guard officers finally boarded the boat, guns drawn, one of the passengers, a woman from Denmark, yelled: "Israeli soldiers, we don't like you."

Before the officers boarded, the ship was put on automatic pilot, so that when the officers tried to commandeer the control room, there was no one there.

When the officers asked passengers who the captain was, they all answered that they were the captains.

The ship was towed back to port and as of 9 P.M. yesterday, the passengers were refusing to disembark. A pro-flotilla demonstration was taking place on the dock.

Dylan Penner, one of the founders of the Canadian group Independent Jewish Voices, said organizers decided to put out to sea because the Greek government has no right to keep a boat that is not flying the Greek flag from sailing away from its port.

Penner said it was an embarrassment for the Greek government to be following the Israeli government's orders, and for the governments of Canada, Belgium and Denmark not to be defending the right to sail. Israel, he said, has extended the Gaza blockade to the shores of Greece.

The Greek government offered a compromise Sunday, under which Greek-owned ships would bring the flotilla aid to either Ashdod or El-Arish, and would then arrange for the cargo to be brought overland to Gaza through the regular crossings.

The compromise was accepted by Israel but rejected by the flotilla organizers, who said the flotilla's goal was aimed at protesting the blockade of Gaza and the violation of its residents' freedom of movement.