The diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and Turkey announced Friday and touted as the main policy achievement of President Obama’s first trip to Israel was years in the making, U.S. and Israeli officials tell The Daily Beast. Obama played it cool and didn’t press Prime Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver the apology that finally let the two nations reconcile after a nearly three-year feud, according to Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
“Obama never demanded this,” Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, told The Daily Beast Saturday in a phone call from Israel, referring to the phone call between Netanyahu and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On that call, Netanyahu said he regretted the loss of life when nine Turkish citizens were killed in 2010, after Israeli soldiers boarded a Turkish ship that was trying to break through Israel’s sea embargo of Gaza.
“At no time were we pressured on this,” Oren said, praising President Obama and new Secretary of State John Kerry for their engaged role in the process. While Obama has been credited in American press reports with “brokering” an end to the dispute between Israel and Turkey, Oren stressed that the two nations along with the United States had long been working to resolve the dispute and that Obama’s visit was more occasion for rolling out the deal than a catalyst to achieving it.
A senior Obama administration official told The Daily Beast, “We had been working on this issue with both leaders for a long time.” This official said Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama urged Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to clarify remarks he made earlier this month saying Zionism, the ideology of Jewish nationalism, was a “crime against humanity.”
Erdogan walked those remarks back earlier this week in an interview with the Danish newspaper Politiken, stressing that he did not mean to question Israel's right to exist within its pre-1967 borders.
That removed a major roadblock for Israel to issue the apology, according to a U.S. and Israeli official. Nonetheless, the senior Obama administration official said the phone call where Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan from a trailer at the Ben Gurion Airport right before Obama departed the country on Friday was not scheduled until late the night before.
Oren was one of the principal diplomats who negotiated with senior U.S. and Turkish officials for the resumption of diplomatic relations between Turkey and the Jewish state, which collapsed on May 1, 2010, when Israeli special operations forces boarded the Mavi Marmara, a ship in the Gaza-bound flotilla, and the nine Turkish citizens were killed.
The Turks were affiliated with the Humanitarian Relief Fund, a charity that works closely with Hamas. At the time, Turkish leaders compared the incident with the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Netanyahu would later say the crew aboard the Mavi Marmara attacked Israeli soldiers who attempted to board the ship with knives and other crude weapons.
The Israel Defense Forces investigated the incident, issuing a still-classified report earlier this year. The Turkish statement Friday referenced that report, saying that it acknowledged operational mistakes in the mission that led to the loss of life. Oren declined to discuss the report, but he noted the Israeli statement was phrased carefully to express regret only for “any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury.”
After the Mavi Marmara incident, the Turks recalled their ambassador from Israel and expelled Israel’s ambassador to Ankara. The government of Turkey also eventually brought legal charges against the Israel Defense Forces officers in Turkish courts and pursued legal action against Israel in international courts.
Oren said the United States had wanted Israel to apologize for the attack and to work out a compensation agreement with Turkey in 2010. “The United States said [in 2010 that] we should express regret for the loss of lives on the Turkish ship, and we should compensate the families of the victims,” Oren said. That request was not repeated by Obama during his trip last week to Israel, Oren said.
Israeli officials were divided on the apology. Some, like former defense minister Ehud Barak, argued it was a sign of good will and would be worth it to restore ties with Turkey. Others, such as former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, worried an apology could be interpreted by foreign courts as an admission of guilt in the pending cases against Israeli officers.
Oren said the agreement reached last week means that Turkey “will not be pursuing legal action, for the government of Turkey, and they will not cooperate in other legal cases against Israel on this issue.” Israel and Turkey have also agreed to negotiate later on the terms of a compensation package for the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara.
In some ways the Turkish mission in 2010 to Gaza was successful, despite failing to land there. Beginning in 2010, Israel, under pressure from the international community began to relax most of the restrictions on imports into Gaza. Between 2007 and 2010, Israel had a list of permissible goods that could enter Gaza with the assumption that most items were impermissible. Today there is a small list of banned imports, but most items are allowed into Gaza.
In a Facebook post Saturday, Netanyahu suggested the ongoing civil war in Syria necessitated restoring normal relations, deeming it “important that Turkey and Israel which [both] border on Syria can contact each other." He credited Obama’s visit for setting the stage for the agreement, saying it “created a political opportunity to resolve the crisis."
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan for his part on Saturday did not appear ready to put the incident behind Turkey. Speaking to Turkish reporters Saturday, he said the timing was still not right to drop the case against four Israeli officers, and painted the apology as a recognition of his country’s growing clout: "We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative, and power, as it did in the past."