Friday, September 9, 2011

Cold Turkey

When Jodie and I walked through the bazaars of Istanbul in March 2010, we were greeted warmly. Although we spoke to each other in English and even though we had flown to the city from Bulgaria, the merchants recognized us as visiting Israelis and called out to us in Hebrew, encouraging us to visit their shops. Wherever we went on our visit to the Muslim country, we felt truly welcome.

We returned to our jobs in Bulgaria and two months later heard the news that Israeli naval commandos had boarded the ships of the so-called Gaza Freedom Flotilla. During the struggle on the Mavi Marmara ship, nine Turkish activists were killed. Despite the footage that showed the ‘peaceful’ activists brutally attacking the Israeli soldiers, resulting in ten of them being wounded, one of them seriously, the international community unanimously condemned Israel’s use of force.

Turkey led the diplomatic assault against what Israel had done, officially claiming that Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip was illegal and demanding an apology and reparations for its civilians who were killed.

This month, the United Nation’s Palmer Report concluded that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip was legal, but that the Israeli armed forces had used excessive force in the incident. The report also mentioned "serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers.”

The report suggested that Israel should issue “an appropriate statement of regret” and “offer payment for the benefit of the deceased and injured victims and their families.” More importantly, “Turkey and Israel should resume full diplomatic relations.”

Unfortunately, the two countries are more entrenched in their positions than ever before. Every day Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announces a new sanction on Israel, having already declared that military cooperation between the two powerful eastern Mediterranean countries had come to an end. Erdogan now threatens that Turkish naval gunships would escort future humanitarian flotillas to Gaza.

Israeli diplomats, for their part, have done little to ease the tensions. In all the statements that I’ve heard, Israel’s ministers repeatedly declare that we have nothing to apologize for and that we will continue to blockade Gaza. As for deteriorating Israeli-Turkish relationships, they shrug and just mention their hope that this tension would soon be behind us.

Israeli officials assume that Turkey is not really interested in an apology at all and is just using the incident to improve its standing in the Muslim world and to highlight its role as champion of Palestinian rights.

Unfortunately, some of Israel’s leaders can be as belligerent and uncompromising as the Turkish prime minister. Today’s Israeli press reported that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was taking steps to punish Turkey for its behavior.

Israel has issued travel warnings urging Israeli military veterans to refrain from traveling to Turkey. Israel plans to cooperate with Armenians and Kurdish rebel groups. And Lieberman plans to push anti-Turkish legislation when he visits with American congressmen on his visit to Washington later this month.

Israel doesn’t need another enemy, and certainly not at a time when the face of the Arab world is changing so rapidly.

In my opinion, both sides should back down from their recalcitrant positions as quickly as possible, before the situation escalates any further. Despite matters of national pride, I think Israel must take the first step and offer some sort of formal apology as an olive branch to the Turkish people.

I hope the day will soon come when I can return to the streets of Istanbul and state proudly and openly that I am an Israeli, happy to be visiting a Turkey that welcomes me.

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