Turkey, Israel, and the Secret Flotilla Negotiations

The Turkish journalist Kadri Gürsel published an interesting piece the other day in Millyet about the failure of the negotiations between Turkey and Israel to normalize relations in the wake of the Mavi Marmara fiasco. Kadri Gürsel is a journalist whose work and opinions I take seriously; here, for example, he’s written a thoughtful piece in Turkish Policy Quarterly that will help you locate him in the spectrum of Turkish political opinion. 

Gürsel first places the blame for the failure of the negotiations on the Turkish foreign ministry’s incompetence (he uses the more tactful phrase “lack of experience,” but the Turkish foreign ministry is hardly inexperienced, so I assume we’re to read between the lines). He then moves to what has become something of a standard narrative in Turkey and elsewhere: that the deal was “95 percent completed,” but fell through only because of Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman’s intransigence:

But the deal was never “100 percent complete” because in Israel, the obstacle, the extreme of the extreme Lieberman was not overcome. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not persuade Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for an apology and compensation. And the Turkey-Israel secret negotiations that started after the U.N. Investigation Panel was formed in August 2010, collapsed in June following the days when the draft agreement was prepared.

Matters in this “duplex channel” were held tight. The Israeli member of the U.N. Investigation Committee, Joseph Ciechanover and Ambassador Özdem Sanberk, who represented Turkey on the panel, were also negotiating through the duplex channel. The head of the panel Geoffrey Palmer and his deputy Alvaro Uribe, even if they were aware of that secret negotiations were conducted between the two countries, they did not know that Ciechanover and Sanberk were the participants. The “duplex channel” held meetings in Geneva, Bucharest and Rome.

Despite all, this draft agreement could be the operational basis for a new normalization process between Turkey and Israel. Of course, if it is possible to persuade Lieberman in the light of new situations in the Middle East.

I asked an Israeli official who was close to these negotiations–and who has thus far never provided me with information that has proved unreliable–for comment. This is what he said:

I’ve seen the “draft deal” and the formula for apology includes indeed the English word “apologize”, though the phrase “operational mistakes that caused life losses and injuries to Turkish people” was preceded by an “if.” (I can’t remember the exact wording, but it went something like: Israel apologizes if there were any operational mistakes etc … ) This was the mutually agreed formula, and by using the conditional mode, it was possible for us to apologize without admitting that we actually did something wrong, which of course we believe we didn’t.

It is also correct that we agreed to pay compensations (through a bi-national fund, not directly), though the Turks did not specify at that point how much they thought would be reasonable. We thought the details and the sum could be worked out later on, based on mutual trust that would arise from the approval of the package deal.

Turkey, however, did not guarantee that ”Turkish citizens and their legal representatives would not take legal action against Israel.” It agreed to promise not to prosecute Israelis, but explained it could commit itself on behalf of private citizens in Turkey or abroad. This made some Israelis suspicious: what would happen if we endorsed the deal, and then had to face suits by members of the Turkish public, maybe even with covert assistance by the government? What guarantee did we have that the “deal” would actually end all claims and enable Israel and Turkey to reconcile and restart their relationship? This suspicion grew stronger in light of Turkey’s insistence that the text should state that Israeli soldiers killed activists “intentionally.” Why insist on this admission of guilt if not to enable legal action? As Gürsel himself says, this text which the Israeli government was supposed to approve was not completely agreed upon by Turkey, because they still wanted to include the intentionality wording. Even if the Israeli government had approved the draft, it would have left us with Turkish disavowal and discontent.

Another condition set forth by the Turks, and agreed to by Israel, was shelving the Palmer Report. Strange that Gürsel should say nothing of this, since he starts his discussion with the meaning of the Report to Turkey. The Turks were very keen on making the report disappear …

Finally, when it all came down to a discussion in the Israeli Cabinet, it wasn’t just Lieberman who was reluctant to approve the whole package deal. Others, too, did not exactly trust Erdoğan, and raised doubts as to his real intentions: what would we get in return for the (indirect) apology, the compensations and the shelving of the report? Restoring ties with Ankara and an “end of conflict.” But what if, after all was said and done, Erdoğan would claim that not all of his conditions were met? That Israel did not fulfill the requirements? All of a sudden, he speaks about lifting the siege on Gaza as a condition – but it was never mentioned in the negotiations nor in the draft! How easily it could have served as a pretext not to restore ties. And as for taking legal action against Israelis, well … With the intentionality clause still open, and with Turkey’s non-commitment to stop private suits, and with the Palmer Report scrapped, where would it all lead us? Certainly not to an end of conflict, but rather to a further deterioration, with us in an inferior position.

This is the reason why quite a few ministers refused to endorse the draft. The Turkish anger at the leak of the Palmer Report, and Davutoğlu’s hot-headed reaction and statements, only seemed to confirm our worst doubts: they were never in earnest to begin with.

I can’t help but suspect that a stronger American effort in this mediation would have been useful.

  1. Pauly

     I agree US help could aleviate some of this but I am afraid this administration backed by a traterous (hope thats a word) media will never support the good only the bad.

  2. cdor

    A stronger effort from a weaker USA would have been useful? Straddling the fence creates crotch sores and not much else. Immediate clear support for the legality of the Israeli position from the USA would have been more useful than trying to haggle some compromise where Israel has to pay for the underhanded and duplicitous behavior of a former ally who has now most definitely joined the enemy camp.  Precisely because of America’s weakness, Turkey has migrated to a more natural ally in Iran and the Muslim Middle East. It was Turkey that purposely created this diplomatic crises. Erdogan is not a reliable negotiating partner. To ask Israel to offer more than a heartfelt condolence for the loss of life, when they can expect nothing more than another knife in the back somewhere down the road, is not sensible from my perspective.

  3. Claire Berlinski
    C
    cdor:  a former ally who has now most definitely joined the enemy camp.  

    This idea is a bit mad. First, Iran is nothing like a “natural ally” of Turkey, it’s historically a natural enemy, and Turkish-Iranian relations of late have been exceptionally strained. Turkey and the US appear to be working in fairly close coordination on Syria. In its foreign policy, it would be hard for the US to ask more of Turkey than what it’s been doing lately. It’s the domestic policy that worries me.

  4. AaronNYC

    American mediation probably would have been a help, but that presupposes that Obama really believed that Israel was in the right.  Our President has proved that he sides with the people who are performing “civil” disobedience.  This is why he likes the Occupiers.  Does anyone believe he agrees with the security measures Israel takes.

  5. Matthew Gilley

    I agree it would have been useful (though of course we can’t say it would have been decisive). An American presence at the table would have at least put some more bargaining chips in play, and my reading of the situation is that Israel and Turkey alone simply don’t have enough chips to strike a satisfactory deal. In reality, though, I’m not sure I would have held out much optimism for an American role since I don’t believe this administration has a grasp on what leverage we really have in the region, how it should be used, or to what ends they should use it (especially when Israel is involved).

  6. cdor

     More angry than mad…but this is the response I expected from you, Claire. Iran and Turkey have a common enemy in the Kurds. What is the “exceptionally strained” aspect of their relationship? It appears to me that the more Islam becomes influential in Turkey’s politic, the more antipathy they have shown towards Israel. Is that also an incorrect perception? Need I even ask? Do you deny that Turkey provoked with  ill intention Israel’s blockade?  So complex are these Turks,

  7. PoppiZ

    “I can’t help but suspect that a stronger American effort in this mediation would have been useful.”

    To whom, Claire, and to what end?

    It appears that unless Israel agrees to twist, pretzel-like, into a position that assuages either US or Turkish sensibilities, it is guilty… of what exactly? The original legitimacy of the Gaza blockade is ignored as is the deliberately provocative nature of the Turkish flotilla; rather, in order to be treated as a second class partner to both Israel is required to “conditionally” accept some form of guilt. What would stronger US effort in the mediation have produced? Israeli agreement to publicly accept this conditional guilt? Would it have likewise produced Turkish contrition for creating this contrived and hyperbolic event in the first place? 

    I think the Israelis rightly discerned the duplicity behind Turkey’s “diplomacy” and have protected themselves without stronger American efforts. What Israel does not do, well, is more effectively influence the public narrative. I can’t help but wonder what this would look like if the liberal Western media was more even-handed.

  8. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Matthew Gilley: Claire, has the U.S. presence in Iraq and our hopes to cultivate Kurdish participation in Iraqi politics made this situation better, worse, or more complicated? · Nov 25 at 11:58am

    Do you mean the PKK situation? If you measure it by the intensity of the conflict, I’d say it’s made in neither worse nor better. It was worst in the ’90s. 

  9. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Jeffrey Zabner: “I can’t help but suspect that a stronger American effort in this mediation would have been useful.”

    To whom, Claire, and to what end?

    To the end of normalizing Turkish-Israeli relations, from which everyone would benefit. It’s in no one’s interests for the rupture to continue. No, of course in a fair world Israel would not be made to play the role of the guilty party here. I’m the one who did all the reporting on the details of the incident, so I know what happened as well as anyone who wasn’t on the ship. But this isn’t a fair world, and the politics of this region are changing so quickly that the Mavi Marmara is, frankly, ancient history. The US has a lot of leverage on both parties and it seems to me it should have been possible to use it to hammer out a deal of some kind. Erdogan’s worries right now are a lot bigger than Israel, and he knows it.

  10. cdor

     ”The US has a lot of leverage on both parties and it seems to me it should have been possible to use it to hammer out a deal of some kind. Erdogan’s worries right now are a lot bigger than Israel, and he knows it.”

    Israel’s problems are a lot bigger than Erdogan’s. It’s called survival. Both Turkey and Hamas know this. I haven’t forgotten this “ally” called Turkey. They are the country that. at the last hour, when our attack could not be stopped, withdrew pass through rights to the U.S. army, forcing us to abandon our Northern flank, and putting the lives of thousands of our men and women in jeopardy. How would Turkey react to Israel if she sent arms to the PKK, even in Iran? Why has Turkey provoked this dangerous confrontation? Turkey is not a reliable ally, if they can even be called an ally at all. If the Mavi Marmara is ancient history, why are we even discussing this?

    I remain sincerely,

    Unconvinced

  11. cdor

    Ok, so Erdogan either miscalculated or knew exactly what he was doing…we haven’t determined that fact. In any case, he ended up getting his country in the middle of an existential fight between Israel and Hamas by allowing this group of highly motivated wackos to use his port and his country’s flag and by actually supporting them afterward, Yes? And now Israel is supposed to do what, humiliate herself so Erdogan can save face…until the next time he needs a diversion because of some internal political problem? Excellent. This is a perfect time for Barack and his Magic Carpet to float over to the ME, lay hands on their heads (Erdogan and Netanyahu) and make everything good again. Only the rest of the world will see the two fingers Obama is holding up behind Netanyahu’s head as the picture is taken. Maybe it will only be one finger this time as Obama becomes more brazenly honest.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and experience with me, Claire. I am just a simple guy in the midwest that gets flownover most of the time. You are a bright star. Be careful, good fortune.

  12. Claire Berlinski
    C
    cdor:   They are the country that. at the last hour, when our attack could not be stopped, withdrew pass through rights to the U.S. army, forcing us to abandon our Northern flank, and putting the lives of thousands of our men and women in jeopardy. 

    And France was up to its neck in the oil-for-food scandal. Do you think that means France should now be treated as an enemy state? Do you think that would be in the interests of the United States or the region?

    Right now, Israel is conducting joint naval exercises with Russia, which just days ago threatened to attack NATO in Europe and which has basically built Iran’s nuclear program. Do you think Israel should be treated as an enemy state? Is that in the interests of the United States or the region?

    Britain refused to accept a negotiated settlement to the Falklands conflict, despite Reagan’s plea. Do you think Britain should be treated as an enemy state? Etc.

    What’s your standard for an alliance: a perfect record, or the security and best interests of the United States, today?

  13. cdor

    Claire at #14…this is your excuse for Turkey’s behavior? I am trying to understand your position here, but you have been asked numerous times on this thread why did Turkey create this provocation? What was their skin in this blockade that Israel necessarily had to enforce against Hamas? Your answer seems always to be, “look over there, it’s a squirrel”. Please answer the basic question.

  14. Claire Berlinski
    C
    cdor: Claire at #14…this is your excuse for Turkey’s behavior? I am trying to understand your position here, but you have been asked numerous times on this thread why did Turkey create this provocation? What was their skin in this blockade that Israel necessarily had to enforce against Hamas? Your answer seems always to be, “look over there, it’s a squirrel”. Please answer the basic question. · Nov 25 at 6:05pm

    Cdor, I’m hardly avoiding the question–I’ve just written so much about it before that I assume no one’s interested in hearing me bang on about it anymore. Let me direct you to my archive on it. I think you’ll see that “avoiding discussion of Turkey’s role in the Mavi Marmara” is not exactly what I’m known for. 

    “Weeping with frustration because I can’t get anyone to pay attention to this” is kind of what I’m known for. 

  15. Claire Berlinski
    C

    (By the way, please note–many of the postings are by Okan, not me. And the archives stretch back over months.)

  16. Claire Berlinski
    C

    And if you want a summary, this piece that I wrote for the Weekly Standard is probably the best. 

  17. cdor

     Excellent journalism, that article in the Standard, well done. So if this group is non-governmental, why has the Turkish government not reonounced them, but instead has taken it upon themselves to escalate the situation? Why did they even let them leave their ports? I am sorry but I can’t read the entire archive, in case you discussed the answer there. Turkey could stop the entire U.S. Army, but not a flotilla of activists? I smell a fish and it’s not pleasant.

  18. Claire Berlinski
    C

    Cdor, one important reason is that the IHH is–also–a humanitarian organization. After the earthquake in Van, I saw exactly why they’re popular here: They were among the first to raise aid for the victims; they went to Van immediately and did something for people. In terms of Turkish domestic politics, it would be no easier to renounce the IHH than, say, for a US government to renounce a major charity group known in the US for really helping Americans. (It would be like Obama renouncing the UAW, in an imperfect political analogy.) My best guess is that the AKP miscalculated: They figured the ship would divert to Ashdod. They certainly did stop them from leaving port the next time.

  19. Claire Berlinski
    C

    “Since Damascus knows that it would almost certainly face a Turkish invasion if it were to allow PKK attacks from its territory into Turkey, it has turned to its ally Tehran for assistance.Since Damascus knows that it would almost certainly face a Turkish invasion if it were to allow PKK attacks from its territory into Turkey, it has turned to its ally Tehran for assistance. Tehran, already annoyed that Turkey is trying to push it out of Iraq, has been glad to help. Iran desperately needs to end Turkey’s policy of confronting Assad.  If not countered, this policy will usher in the end of the Assad regime in Syria, costing Iran its precious Levantine client state.  Hence, Iran’s age-old strategy against Turkey has been resuscitated: using the PKK to attack Ankara from another country in order to pressure Turkey. Accordingly, since the beginning of the summer, the PKK has attacked Turkey from Iraq, killing almost 100 Turks as well as kidnapping dozens of people.” (From Cagaptay, all correct, except the number of dead is now three times that.)

    So yes, relations are strained. Oh, and as I mentioned here, Iran has detained and tortured Turkish academics.

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