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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.