The long-delayed apology last week by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for the deaths of 9 Turkish citizens on the Turkish aid ship Mavi Marmara in 2010 is a BIG DEAL, for which President Obama deserves kudos. Here's the backstory:
Turkish-Israeli relations have been frozen ever since Israeli commandos killed the civilians in a raid aimed at preventing the ship from breaching Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza in 2010. This freeze has prevented these two, once-close, Mediterranean powerhouses from cooperating on key strategic issues in the region. That military and intelligence cooperation is now more vital than ever in dealing with Syria and Iran (even if Israeli-Turkish relations never return to previous warm levels).
U.S. officials have tried repeatedly to heal this breach, which generated intense emotions on each side. There have also been extensive back channel talks between Turkish and Israeli mediators, but until now to no avail.
I have written extensively on these contacts, especially In 2011, when Netanyahu, at the last moment, rejected a compromise that had been negotiated between Israeli and Turkish diplomats. In July 2011, Israeli sources told me Netanyahu was considering an apology for “operational mistakes” during the raid – the very formula he finally endorsed last week. Then Israeli-defense minister Ehud Barak endorsed the idea because he believed the Israeli-Turkish relationship was strategically vital.
In September, 2011, a U.N. report on the Mavi Marmara incident by the Palmer Commission provided the perfect cover for the apology. The Commission recognized Israel’s right to impose a naval blockade on Gaza in order to prevent arms shipments to the radical Palestinian group Hamas, but concluded that the Israeli raid on the ship had used “excessive force.” Given the claims by many parties, including Turkey, that the blockade itself was illegal, the Palmer Commission’s findings were a boon for Israel.
All expectations then were that Netanyahu would then apologize for “operational mistakes”, yet unexpectedly, he backed out and rejected the language his own diplomats had agreed on. Apparently domestic politics led him to insist that Israel “need not apologize.”
Obama’s intercession finally appears to have convinced the Israeli leader that urgent strategic matters trump those domestic political concerns.