netanyahu - Michal Fattal - August 30 2011
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo by Michal Fattal
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The expanding crisis with Turkey "is not our choice" and Israel would gladly welcome a resolution, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday in his first public comments on the strained relations with Ankara.

"This was not our choice and it still isn't our choice," Netanyahu said during a naval officers course graduation in Haifa. "We respect the Turkish people and their heritage. We definitely want relations to improve."

"But even so, and especially here, before the commanders and comrades-in-arms of those who with their bodies stopped a breach of the naval blockade against the terror regime in Gaza, I want to state, loud and clear: The righteousness of our cause is the State of Israel's strategic asset," Netanyahu said. "It is the strongest thing that sustains us, that gives us the strength to cope with challenges that no state and no people must face."

After expelling Israeli diplomats last week and suspending all military deals, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Wednesday that Israel was violating defense agreements, and he accused Israel of not returning drones that Turkey had bought from Israel and had sent back for maintenance.

"They are not loyal to agreements between us in the defense industry," Erdogan said. "There might be problems, you may not be speaking to each other, but you have to fulfill your responsibility under international agreements."

Turkey has purchased 10 Heron drones from Israel, after leasing a number of unmanned spy planes from the country.

Turkey uses the drones to spy on Kurdish rebels, who maintain bases in northern Iraq, and who have recently escalated their attacks on Turkish troops and police officers.

Turkey's sanctions against Israel follow a UN report on the flotilla raid last year, which accuses Israel of using excessive force that resulted in the death of nine Turkish nationals. Yet the report also describes Israel's blockade of Gaza as legitimate.

Israel has expressed regret for the loss of lives aboard the flotilla but has refused to apologize, saying its forces acted in self-defense.

Erdogan rejected the possibility of easing the tensions, saying Turkey is determined to keep up its stance toward Israel at any cost.

"We don't care if it costs $15 million or $150 million," Erdogan said. "We will not allow anyone to walk all over our honor."

Israeli defense officials refused to respond officially to Erdogan's accusations regarding the drones, but they privately dismissed the allegations.

"At issue are drone engines that we sent to Israel for routine maintenance in accordance with the supply contract, and the Turks will get them back when the work is finished," a senior Defense Ministry source said. "Erdogan's accusations are baseless."

The 10 drones were supplied to the Turkish military two years ago in a deal that involved Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit. Delivery of the drones was delayed due to technical difficulties caused by the Turks' demand to install Turkish surveillance cameras, which were heavier than the original cameras.

The Turkish media periodically accused Israel of delivering the drones with malfunctions, even though all the problems were corrected.

"These are recycled accusations," said a military industry source. "The fact is that these drones are flying regularly and helping the Turkish military in its battle against the Kurdish rebels. Apparently it's hard for them to admit that they are using Israeli technology."