Though a draft agreement that could end a nearly four-year-old dispute with Turkey was submitted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, he has not yet to act upon it, generating concern he might be getting cold feet about a deal he had previously seemed eager to conclude.
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Israeli and Turkish negotiating teams formulated a draft agreement 10 days ago to end the crisis that erupted between the two countries after a May 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship leading a flotilla trying to break the Gaza blockade. The raid left nine Turkish nationals dead and several wounded.
Talks on the reconciliation agreement resumed in early December in Istanbul, after a long hiatus that was the result of a seemingly unbridgeable gap over the level of compensation Israel would pay to the wounded and the families of the dead. The initiative for restarting the talks came from Turkey, and Netanyahu gave his envoys – National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen, Joseph Chiechanover and Foreign Ministry Director-General Nissim Ben-Sheetrit – a broad mandate to work toward reconciliation.
Optimism grew when the Turks significantly reduced the amount they were demanding as compensation, though they were still asking for $30 million, twice what Israel was willing to pay. Upon returning to Israel from Istanbul, the negotiating team was authorized by Netanyahu to offer $20 million, and to even go up to $23 million if that would clinch the deal.
Another round of talks in Jerusalem early last week resulted in a draft agreement, in which Israel agreed to pay compensation, while Turkey agreed to pass a law that would lead to cancellation of lawsuits filed against IDF soldiers and officers who had participated in the Marmara raid. The agreement also outlines steps to be taken to normalize relations between the two countries.
Israeli officials say that the negotiating team had recommended that Netanyahu sign the agreement, since it met most of Israel’s demands. The feeling was that the deal would be signed in a matter of days. But Netanyahu has yet to make a decision, leading Israeli officials to fear that the premier may have changed his mind. The concern is that if an agreement isn’t signed soon, one party or the other will do something that would upset the applecart and delay the reconciliation, as has already happened several times.
Such an event occurred Tuesday evening, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference in Ankara that without a “written commitment” from Israel to lift the siege on Gaza, he would not agree to normalize relations and end the crisis. The Prime Minister’s Office was quick to respond that there were no plans to lift the sea blockade on Gaza, let alone commit to it in writing.
A senior Israeli official said that Erdogan’s remarks were greeted with astonishment in Jerusalem. The main reason for this was that the issue of the Gaza blockade was not on the agenda of the current negotiations, but was being dealt with on a parallel channel that was making progress. Over the past year, Israel has allowed the Turks to significantly increase the amount of humanitarian aid it transfers to Gaza through the Ashdod Port. Israel has also allowed the transfer of all the materials needed for the construction of a Turkish hospital in Gaza. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu even praised the improvement in Israel’s policy towards Gaza in an interview with Turkish television in November 2013.
One hypothesis in Jerusalem is that Erdogan’s statement was an expression of dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s delay in pushing through the draft agreement. But most of those involved said that Erdogan’s statements were motivated mostly by internal politics, as Turkey goes into the home stretch before the country’s local elections in March, and did not indicate he was backing away from the reconciliation pact. However, these officials expressed concern that Erdogan’s remarks may dissuade Netanyahu from accepting the draft agreement now, which would put off reconciliation moves until after the Turkish elections.
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on this report.