Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told U.S. President Barack Obama last week that the delay in signing an Israeli-Turkish reconciliation agreement is entirely the fault of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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A senior Israeli official involved in the talks with Turkey denied that Israel is to blame for the delay. The Turks are at least equally to blame, if not more so, he said, adding that there are still disputes between the sides that are preventing the deal from being finalized.
Erdogan conveyed his message in a telephone call with Obama last Wednesday, Haaretz has learned. The conversation dealt with a long list of issues connected to the situation in the Middle East, including the ongoing efforts to end the crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations that erupted following Israel’s botched raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to the Gaza Strip in May 2010.
After that conversation, the White House issued a brief statement saying that Obama had urged Erdogan to finalize the agreement and normalize relations with Israel. But Israeli sources who were briefed on the details of the phone call said the two leaders actually held a lengthier discussion of the issue than the statement indicated.
According to the Israeli sources, Obama told Erdogan that almost a year had passed since Netanyahu called the Turkish leader and apologized for the deaths of nine Turkish nationals during the raid. That phone call, which took place during Obama’s visit to Israel, was personally orchestrated by the U.S. president, and it was supposed to launch negotiations between the two sides on a reconciliation agreement. Obama had expected those talks to be concluded within a few months, he told Erdogan, but a year later, nothing had happened.
Erdogan then told Obama that over the past few weeks, the negotiators had finished preparing a draft agreement that was supposed to restore normal relations. But Netanyahu hasn’t yet responded to the proposed agreement, Erdogan said, and is thereby delaying an end to the crisis. “The ball is now in Netanyahu’s court,” the Israeli sources quoted Erdogan as telling the U.S. president.
Obama then told Erdogan that he is supposed to host Netanyahu at the White House next Monday and that at this meeting he will demand the reconciliation deal be finalized promptly.
Israeli and Turkish negotiators finalized the draft agreement four weeks ago. The draft was then brought to Netanyahu for approval along with the negotiators’ recommendation that he sign, but he delayed making a decision. As the days passed, some on the Israeli side began to fear that Netanyahu had changed his mind about reconciliation with the Turks.
They also worried that if he didn’t approve the deal swiftly, somebody in either Turkey or Israel would do something to reshuffle the deck and push reconciliation further away, as had occurred more than once in the past. And indeed, that’s exactly what happened. A few days later, Erdogan once again declared publicly that he wouldn’t normalize relations until Israel ended its blockade of Gaza.
One theory in Jerusalem is that Erdogan’s statement stemmed from anger at Netanyahu’s delay in approving the agreement.
Over the past few weeks, the negotiations have entered the deep freeze, and Israel’s assessment is that no further progress will be made until after Turkey’s local elections on March 30.
Talks on the reconciliation agreement had resumed in early December after a prolonged hiatus. Before the Israeli negotiators left for Turkey, Netanyahu made a strategic decision to end the crisis. He therefore gave them more leeway than before and ordered them to try to finalize an agreement.
The talks held in Istanbul raised hopes in Jerusalem, as the Turks significantly reduced the amount of compensation they were demanding from Israel, to $30 million. The Israeli team initially offered only $15 million. But after they returned to Israel and reported on the talks to Netanyahu, he gave them permission to go higher. As first reported by Haaretz last week, the prime minister authorized them to offer $20 million and said they could even add another two or three million dollars if necessary to finalize the agreement.
The White House refused to comment on this report, saying it had nothing to add to the statement it issued last week. The Prime Minister's Office also declined to comment.