Turkey Set on Improving Israel Ties, but Insists on Apology for Gaza Flotilla Raid

Turkish foreign minister accuses Israeli government of not reciprocating Turkey's overtures to negotiate a settlement over flotilla incident.

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Turkey's foreign minister on Saturday said that his country wants improved ties with Israel but that Israel must apologize and offer compensation for its raid on a Gaza Strip-bound aid flotilla in May in which nine Turkish citizens were killed.

The U.S. and the European Union have called on Turkey and Israel to overcome tensions and renew close links to help with peace efforts in the Middle East.

Turkey’s Ahmet DavutogluCredit: AP

"We have the intention of making peace with Israel," the state-run Anatolia news agency quoted Ahmet Davutoglu as saying during a meeting with a group of journalists in Istanbul. "We are for peace with all countries."

"Why should we want bad relations with a country with whom we are trying to broker peace," Davutoglu said in reference to Turkey's mediation between Israel and Syria in 2008, a role that won this NATO member international praise.

Israel and Turkey built strong military and economic ties over the past 15 years, and Turkey became Israel's closest ally in the Muslim world.

Relations between the two soured, however, with Turkey's Islamic-oriented government's increasingly vociferous criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. They hit an all-time low in May, when nine Turkis activists were killed as Israeli naval commandos boarded a Gaza-bound ship that was trying to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv and Turkish leaders denounced Israel repeatedly over the raid. Turkey has made an Israeli apology and compensation for the victims' families a condition for improved ties.

Israeli commandos said they opened fire in self-defense after meeting what they called unexpected resistance when they boarded the ferry carrying aid supplies to Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also wants Israel to end its blockade on the Gaza Strip. Israel and Egypt blockaded Gaza after the militant Islamic Hamas seized control there in 2007.

Israel wants Turkey to return its ambassador and remove the raid from the international agenda.

"Turkish citizens have been killed in international waters, nothing can cover up this truth," Davutoglu said. "We want to both preserve relations and defend our rights. If our friendship with Israel is to continue, the way for it is to apologize and offer compensation."

He spoke on the eve of the return of the raided Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, to Istanbul. Pro-Islamic groups were preparing to welcome the ship in a ceremony Sunday.

The flotilla was trying to break the blockade, though Israel charged it was an orchestrated provocation. After the raid, Israel significantly eased import restrictions over land, and announced it would permit increased exports from Gaza.

High-ranking Israeli and Turkish officials held two-days of talks in the Swiss capital, Geneva, aimed at mending ties after Turkey sent aircraft and firefighters to help Israel battle the Carmel forest fire earlier this month.

"We are having difficulties when it is not reciprocated," Davutoglu said of the Turkish gesture.

Israel responded to the remarks on Saturday, saying the country's record in sending humanitarian aid to Turkey speaks for itself and it "speaks in a much more truthful and friendly manner than this statement by the Turkish foreign minister," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.

"Israel gave Turkey assistance for earthquakes on two occasions as well as recent assistance offered that Turkey turned down," Palmor said.

He also said that Israel has never made it a mystery that it wants good relations with Turkey. "This has been our unchanged goal and remains so."

It has been reported that negotiations became deadlocked because of Israel's refusal to apologize for the killings of the activists and Turkey's refusal to promise to abstain from legal action against Israeli soldiers and declare that the soldiers acted in self-defense.

An Israeli official told Haaretz two weeks ago that the talks were "stuck" and that "differences are still great."

Nonetheless, he said it is still early to declare the talks dead and expected further discussions very soon.

In an interview published last Sunday in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, U.S. President Barack Obama urged Turkey and Israel to "do everything they can to repair their relations."

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