Israeli-Turkish Relations Deteriorate Despite UN Study

Once allies, the nations are at each other’s throats after an international report shared the blame for the flotilla raid.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey addresses the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 28, 2010
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey addresses the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 28, 2010 (UNAOC)

At a time when the Israeli government is facing mounting unrest at home over housing prices, turmoil along its border with Egypt, attacks against its embassy in Cairo and an imminent diplomatic crisis as the Palestinians prepare to make a bid for statehood at the United Nations General Assembly this month, a UN report threatens to make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s life even harder.

The story starts back in May 2010. When a Turkish humanitarian aid flotilla was on its way to Gaza, Israeli commandos executed a daring operation to stop its landing. The ships’ immediate aim was to deliver humanitarian supplies to Palestinian civilians in the territory who had been subjected to a comprehensive and strictly enforced Israeli land and naval blockade since January 2009.

While easing Palestinian suffering was the stated intention of the trip, the flotilla always had a more political goal in mind — breaching the Israeli embargo and pressuring the Israeli government into changing its policies in the strip.

The operation went terribly wrong. Turkish and Israeli accounts differ but reports suggest that Israeli soldiers were assaulted by a few passengers upon boarding, forcing the troops to retaliate once on the ship. When all was said and done, nine Turkish civilians were killed and the ship was intercepted and docked in an Israeli port for inspection. Relations between Turkey and Israel — which were deep and lasting on the military front — went into a free fall over Israel’s refusal to apologize for the deaths. For the last year, the United Nations were tasked with finding out what exactly happened on that flotilla.

The basic contents of the UN report (PDF) are now out for the public to see, courtesy of The New York Times. Its conclusions, based on the initial summary, are definitive on some points, but murky on others. Israeli commandos, according to the report’s authors, faced “organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers” but responded in an indiscriminate, abusive and improper fashion.

As to the intent of the flotilla, the UN panel concluded that serious questions remain as to whether the Turkish government could have done more to ensure that the people participating were unarmed and peaceful. The commission also urged Israel however to issue “an appropriate statement of regret” for the killings — something Jerusalem has been reluctant to do.

As the duplicative findings fail to bring both parties to a sense of closure, the question must be asked as to whether the UN investigation was worth the paper it was written on. Fifteen months of inquiry and 105 pages later, the basic issue of who was ultimately responsible and therefore who should ultimately be held accountable is still up in the air. Splitting the blame may have been the diplomatically prudent way to do it but the lack of a clear cut verdict will likely aggravate the already tense relationship between Israel and Turkey.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has withdrawn his ambassador from Israel. Israel’s ambassador to Turkey was kicked out of the country and the military to military collaboration that is so vital for both countries has been suspended. Erdoğan has even threatened to use the Turkish Navy to escort future humanitarian missions, a decision that could spiral out of control if its navy is compelled to use force to ensure that a cargo is delivered to Palestinian territory. Benjamin Netanyahu, in the meantime, is not buckling to the pressure, reiterating his stance that Israel has nothing to apologize for.

Both states lose in the end. Turkey, which keen to promote a “zero problems with neighbors” policy in the Middle East, loses an important source of military expertise and credibility — especially from the West where Turkey’s diplomatic ties with Israel were viewed as a positive development. Israel loses an alliance with a Muslim country which has contributed to its now rock bottom legitimacy in the region.

The United Nations sit in a corner by themselves, wondering how to resolve a mess that their report made messier.