Just before last Monday’s press conference in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel had reached a reconciliation agreement with Turkey, Joseph Ciechanover was running around the makeshift office of the Israeli delegation in Rome’s Cavalieri Hotel. He was excited and had a huge smile on his face.
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Six years after a phone call from the Prime Minister’s Office put him in the midst of the most serious crisis ever between Israel and one of its close allies, the special envoy can now say with pride that he succeeded in putting an end to the affair.
“Every one of us – both on the Israeli and Turkish side – came out at the end of the negotiations with the feeling that they had paid [a price], but also received good [value] in return,” Ciechanover tells Haaretz.
“In this agreement, we planted a seedling. In relations between nations, like in relations between people, it depends on how you nurture it now. The seedling will not grow by itself. And if it does grow by itself, it’s not certain it will be in the form you wanted it to grow. We created the foundation, but from here on it’s essential that the two sides take care to nurture it and extract the maximum possible in the relations between one of the largest Muslim nations in the world and Israel.”
Ciechanover has avoided interviews over the past six years, preferring instead to maintain a low profile and operate behind the scenes. The first time he spoke out publicly on the agreement was during this week’s press conference in Rome. Even now, after he’s fulfilled his mission, he remains cautious. Very cautious.
He weighs every word, refuses to reveal most of what happened behind the scenes in the negotiations with the Turks, and even less about what went on in the Prime Minister’s Office. He says he needs to leave something for the next interview.
He has a great deal of criticism for the Israeli government’s actions on the matter: The times Netanyahu retreated at the last moment from signing the agreement; of then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman slamming Turkey; and this week’s attacks on the agreement and description of it as a humiliating act of surrender. But all of this is less important to Ciechanover now. He prefers to concentrate on the glass half-full, and what he sees as the positive results.
Ciechanover will soon celebrate his 83rd birthday. He’s served in a long line of senior positions in the diplomatic and security sphere. He was legal adviser to the Defense Ministry after the Six-Day War in 1973, and from 1974 to 1978 headed the Defense Ministry’s delegation in North America. He then served as director general of the Foreign Ministry under Moshe Dayan during the peace talks with Egypt and the Camp David Accords.
In June 2010, a few weeks after the Gaza flotilla incident in which nine Turkish citizens were killed on the Mavi Marmara when it was boarded by Israeli soldiers (a tenth later died of his wounds), Ciechanover was invited to an urgent meeting with Netanyahu.
The two have known each other since Netanyahu was ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s. The flotilla incident created a serious crisis in relations with Turkey and demands for the establishment of an international commission of inquiry.
In an attempt to block further deterioration, Netanyahu announced that he was establishing an Israeli commission to investigate, headed by retired Justice Jacob Turkel, along with two foreign observers. Nonetheless, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed his own international investigative commission.
Ciechanover recommended to Netanyahu that Israel should cooperate, saying it had nothing to lose because even if the commission’s report turned out to be bad, it definitely would be bad if Israel didn’t cooperate. Ultimately, Netanyahu told Ciechanover that if he was so good at giving advice, he would be the Israeli representative to the UN commission.
The Turkel Commission found that Israel had acted according to international law, that the naval blockade on Gaza was legal, and that Israeli soldiers had used proportional and justified force in the face of violence by the passengers onboard the Turkish ship.
As the UN meetings proceeded, Ciechanover became close to his Turkish counterpart on the commission, Ozdem Sanberk, and they decided to use their meetings in New York for more than just the investigative report. They realized that a reconciliation between the two countries would require more than a UN report, and discussed how to advance such a reconciliation. They established a secret channel between the two countries, but hid the fact from the UN commission.
The UN report in 2011 infuriated the Turks. It found that Israel’s naval blockade was legal, as well as the takeover of the flotilla ships. However, it did find that Israel used excessive force and recommended that it apologize to Turkey and pay compensation. The Turks recalled their ambassador to Israel and the situation worsened – but the secret channel continued.
The big change that led to a breakthrough came at the end of 2012, when Netanyahu decided – after Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza – to express willingness to apologize to the Turks, says Ciechanover; the envoy began trying to see what type of apology would be acceptable. The apology was eventually made in March 2013, during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel.
Next came the issue of compensation, but the difference between the two sides was huge. In the end, the Turks showed willingness to compromise: Israel ultimately agreed to pay $20 million into a “humanitarian fund,” with the Turkish government responsible for dividing the money between the victims’ families. In return, Turkey promised to pass a law canceling all other claims against Israel over the incident.
At the beginning of February 2013, after another round of talks in Jerusalem, a draft of the agreement was drawn up. Netanyahu had major reservations, and considered waiting to see the results of the Turkish general election – while the Turks again hardened their position.
Do you feel that internal political considerations caused Netanyahu to reject accepting the agreement earlier?
Ciechanover: “Netanyahu must consider political considerations too, which I don’t have to consider. It’s legitimate. During 2014 and early 2015, the talks went nowhere. The 2014 war in Gaza followed by the [Knesset] election were the main reasons. The talks resumed in the second half of 2015, and last December the two sides once again reached a draft agreement – almost identical to the one reached two years earlier. It only took a few more months to finish.”
Was it possible to make this deal sooner?
“There were ups and downs between the sides, elections a few times, a change of government in Israel and in Turkey We all reached the conclusion it was a good contract.”
So what about the claims of critics who say that if we’d waited a little longer, we could have got a better agreement?
“Maybe if we waited another 20 years we wouldn’t get anything. The years passed and there’s a war in Syria, there’s Iran and natural gas, and other security issues – and economic matters. Anyone can say what they want in hindsight.”
Ciechanover is optimistic about the future of relations between Israel and Turkey, though he has few illusions. Nothing lasts forever in politics, he says; things are dynamic and fluid. However, there is potential and we must take advantage of it.
Wasn’t there a stage in these six years when you thought, “That’s it, I’m sick of it?”
“I needed a lot of patience. If you don’t have it, don’t go into this business.”