Turkish Foreign Minister Says 'Gap With Israel Closing'

Senior Israeli official involved in negotiations says notwithstanding media reports, talks between Israel and Turkey are 'frozen.'

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Despite its highs and lows, Israel values relations with Turkey far more than those with Armenia: A billboard celebrating Netanyahu's 2013 apology to Erdogan for the Mavi Marmara affair
Despite its highs and lows, Israel values relations with Turkey far more than those with Armenia: A billboard celebrating Netanyahu's 2013 apology to Erdogan for the Mavi Marmara affairCredit: AP
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Turkey is sending increasingly positive messages regarding a reconciliation agreement with Israel, as the March 30 local election nears.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told AFP on Wednesday that Turkey is interested in bringing the 2010 Mavi Marmara crisis to an end. "The gap between the expectations of the two sides is closing," he said. "Progress has been made to a great extent, but the two sides need to meet again for a final agreement."

Davutoglu also said that "an answer is expected from the Israeli side" to Turkey's demands. "What's important is to reach an agreement," he added. "I can say there's a positive momentum and a process in a positive direction."

Davutoglu's words are part of a slew of reports published in recent days on the imminent reconciliation between Jerusalem and Ankara. On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told the Turkish Daily Hurriyet that a reconciliation deal between Israel and Turkey over the 2010 Mavi Maramara raid could be signed as early as next month, following the March 30 elections.

On Thursday morning, the Daily Sabah reported that Israel will pay compensation of $21 million to the families of the victims of the Gaza flotilla as part of the reconciliation deal. Haaretz reported two months ago that Israel will pay between $20-23 million.

The article also stated that as part of the potential agreement, Israel will provide Turkey with a special status regarding humanitarian aid to Gaza residents, following Turkey's demand to remove the siege on Gaza. Turkey will be authorized to transfer any kind of humanitarian aid into Gaza and the newly-instated Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv will be responsible for the operations.

The last meeting between the negotiating teams took place in February in Jerusalem. The sides produced a draft for the agreement at the end of that round, however Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not adopt it and did not provide a formal response. After waiting for a response, Prime Minister Erdogan decided to publicly present another condition – a written commitment to end the siege on Gaza. U.S. President Barak Obama spoke with Erdogan and Netanyahu in recent weeks, but both sides blamed the other for the stalemate.

A senior Israeli official involved in negotiations noted that notwithstanding the media reports, talks between Israel and Turkey are "frozen." He says that while representatives on both sides are in ongoing phone contact, conditions for an agreement are not yet ripe.

Officials in Jerusalem believe the flood of reports stems primarily from Turkish officials' domestic political motives ahead of elections. Erdogan is under pressure and fears losing power, so he is trying to play up progress on the Israeli front in order to show his voters achievements and a more moderate position.

Another news item in Today's Zaman reported that Netanyahu's special envoy David Meidan met with Turkey's National Intelligence Organization Chief official in Ankara, Hakan Fidan, on Monday.

David Meidan, who coordinated the negotiations with Hamas for the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit and has known Fidan for several years. At the meeting the two reportedly agreed that embassies in both countries should reopen and discussed the possibility of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visiting Israel.

The Zaman report is somewhat dubious because the embassies in Ankara and Tel Aviv never closed, rather the diplomatic ranking of its representatives was downgraded – so there is in fact no need to reopen them. It is also highly unlikely that Erdogan will visit Israel, even if a reconciliation deal is signed.

A senior Israeli official confirmed that Meidan was in Ankara this week but was there for personal reasons and not in his capacity as a representative of Netanyahu. The Israelis overseeing reconciliation matters are national security adviser Yossi Cohen, Foreign Ministry Director-General Nissim Ben-Shitrit and Netanyahu's envoy Yosef Chechanover.

The report in Zaman referred to Meidan as Netanyahu's envoy on "energy and security" matters, thus hinting at the purpose of his trip, and indeed it was reported that they spoke about the possibility of cooperation on oil and gas exploration in the East Mediterranean.

A senior Israeli official confirmed that Turkey needs natural gas and is interested in purchasing it from Israel, however this won't happen until the two countries reconcile. Some Turkish companies have shown interest in a pipeline connecting Israeli gas drilling facilities to Turkey. Israel is hesitant to promote gas sales with Turkey and utilize its infrastructure for natural gas distribution due to their tense relations and the possibility that future political rifts with Turkey could hurt the gas supply.

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