Ya'alon Demands Return of Soldiers' Bodies From Gaza as Part of Any Israel-Turkey Reconciliation Deal

The defense minister's hardline stance has contributed considerably to Netanyahu's hesitation in signing a reconciliation agreement with Turkey, senior Israeli official says.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
David Bachar

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon is demanding that any reconciliation agreement with Turkey include the return of the bodies of fallen Israeli soldiers currently held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, according to a senior Israeli official.

The bodies held in Gaza are those of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, both of whom were killed in 2014's Operation Protective Edge.

Another round of talks between Israel and Turkey was held on Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland. Israel was represented by the PM's envoy, Yosef Ciechanover, and National Security Council Acting Chairman Yaakov Nagal, and Turkey sent Deputy Foreign Minister Fereydoun Sinirlioğlu.

Ya'alon has voiced the demand for the bodies' return during recent internal discussions in Jerusalem over a normalization of relations between the two countries, following the crisis caused by the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010.

The defense minister is practically the only minister who has expressed doubts about an agreement with Turkey, according to the senior official, who is knowledgeable about the details of the discussions.

Oron Shaul.

He has set a string of conditions over the past year, none of which were part of the initial negotiations. Those conditions have been presented to Turkey by Israel.

According to the official, who asked to remain anonymous, Ya'alon's hardline stance has contributed significantly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hesitation about signing the reconciliation agreement.

It was Ya'alon, for example, who raised the issue of Turkey expelling from its territory the senior Hamas military leader Salah Aruri, who controled Hamas terror units in the West Bank from Istanbul.

Ya'alon was also the one who insisted on having pressure exerted on Hamas to entirely halt its military activities against Israel as part of any agreement.

During the internal discussions in Jerusalem, Ya'alon has opposed any Israeli willingness to accede to the Turkish demand that Israel ease its sea blockade of Gaza and enable direct Turkish access to the Strip via the sea.

His position has been that Israel needs to demand Turkish pressure on Hamas for the return of the bodies in return for any easing of the blockade on Gaza.

Ya'alon's bureau declined to comment on the contents of this report.

Ya'alon voiced his reservations publicly during his visit to Greece two weeks ago, while the reconciliation contacts between Israel and Turkey were ongoing. During a press conference in Athens with his Greek counterpart, Ya'alon described Turkey as a supporter of terror and as a buyer of oil from the Islamic State.

"ISIS benefits from Turkish money as a result of Turkey's long-time purchases of oil," Ya'alon said. "I hope it stops."

Turkey, he added, "enables jihadists to move backwards and forwards between Europe and Syria and Iraq and to be part of the ISIS terror infrastructure in Europe. I hope that too is brought to an end."

"Turkey still hosts the external terror leadership of Hamas in Istanbul. If all those activities are stopped and if Turkey is willing to renew relations with us, then maybe it will be able to be part of the regional activities against terror, instead of assisting it."

A senior Israeli official said that the two sides have finalized almost all the details of the reconciliation agreement. Aside from Ya'alon's demand, two hurdles remain: The first is Turkey's demand for free access to the Gaza Strip, including letting Turkish vessels dock in the Strip. Israel is unwilling to grant the demand, both because it wants to maintain the naval blockade on Gaza and because of Egypt's objection to increased Turkish involvement in the Strip.

The second contested issue regards Hamas' activities in Turkey. Israel claims that even though Ankara expelled senior Hamas operator Salah Aruri, who masterminded terror attacks in the West Bank from Turkey, the militant group still operates headquarters in Istanbul, which engages in fundraising and in planning attacks. Israel is demanding Turkey to shut down the Hamas headquarters, and ban the group from militant activity in its territory.

On Tuesday Netanyahu said that both Israel and Turkey will have to make compromises in the course of their rapprochement