Senior Israeli Ministers to Decide Next Week Whether to Accept Reconciliation With Turkey

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has withdrawn twice at last moment from signing similar agreement over the past year, due to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's strong objection.

The senior ministers' "Forum of Eight" will convene next week to decide whether to accept a reconciliation agreement with Turkey, entailing Israel's apology for killing nine Turkish nationals during its raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla in May 2010.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has withdrawn twice at the last moment from signing a similar agreement over the past year, due to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's strong objection, Haaretz has learned. Lieberman yesterday attacked Netanyahu for the plan to apologize, saying at a Yisrael Beiteinu faction meeting: Resorting to a legal argument to make excuses for the apology to Turkey indicates inabilty to withstand pressure. This is not a legal issue but a foreign policy issue," said Lieberman calling the apology "capitulation".

Dan Meridor
Olivier Fitoussi

Netanyahu must determine the issue by next Wednesday, when the United Nations is to release its report on the flotilla.

The fence-mending talks between Israel and Turkey began soon after the flotilla and gained momentum in December, following Turkey's assistance in putting out the Carmel fire.

The talks yielded a draft agreement stipulating that Israel would apologize to Turkey for operational errors in exercising force during the interception of the Mavi Marmara, which resulted in the killing of nine Turkish activists aboard the vessel.

Turkey, on its part, would recognize Israel's right to self defense, return its ambassador to Tel Aviv and announce the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel.

Netanyahu supported the draft, which was presented to the "Forum of Seven" ministers in December 2010, but Lieberman objected, saying that apologizing to Turkey would be "surrendering to terror."

A senior diplomatic source said Netanyahu pulled out of the agreement at the last moment, due to Lieberman's vociferous objection and the fear of a coalition crisis.

In March 2010 another round of talks with Turkey led to a similar draft. Netanyahu raised the issue for debate and again put the decision off due to Lieberman's objection.

"Every time the Israelis said they could not apologize because Netanyahu was afraid the coalition would break up," a senior Turkish official said.

A month ago Netanyahu sent Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who objected to apologizing to Turkey, to the talks with senior Turkish officials in Geneva.

"Ya'alon prevented anything that resembled a concession or flexibility on Israel's part," a diplomatic source said.

After pressure from the United States the two sides received an extension for the talks until next Wednesday. Since no additional talks are planned, Netanyahu must again decide whether to accept the draft agreement first proposed at the end of 2010.

Netanyahu is considering supporting an Israeli apology to Turkey if it prevents the filing of lawsuits against IDF soldiers.

Failing to reach an agreement with Turkey before the UN report's release could lead to a further deterioration of relations between the two states, a senior Jerusalem source said.

"It's a choice between apologizing to Turkey in exchange for understandings that would prevent suits against IDF soldiers, and the risk of exacerbating the crisis and a Turkish legal campaign against anyone who took part in the operation," the source said.

"We're not apologizing for the blockade or for stopping the flotilla - which were legal - but for operative mistakes. If that enables stopping Turkish lawsuits it should be considered seriously," he said.