ANKARA (Hurriyet Daily News)–With feelings warmer between the two countries following Ankara’s fire-fighting assistance last week, high-level Turkish and Israeli officials meet in Geneva to try and end the tensions and revive bilateral ties, reported the Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
According to Turkish diplomatic sources, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is particularly pushing for a diplomatic breakthrough.
The two-day talks between Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu and Yosef Ciechanover, the Israeli representative to the U.N. committee probing Israel’s deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, marked a second round of high-level talks since the May 31 attack.
Turkish diplomats declined to comment on the content of the Geneva talks, but the two sides were reportedly working on a formula to end the diplomatic tension, taking advantage of the opening provided by Turkey’s dispatching last week of two fire-fighting planes to help extinguish a devastating forest fire in Israel.
“If someone extends us a friendly hand for a solution to problems, we do not leave that hand in the air,” said a Turkish diplomatic source.
“It is certain that the ‘fire diplomacy’ has encouraged the diplomatic contact. These kinds of situations sometimes help break the ice,” another senior Turkish diplomat told Hurriyet, speaking on condition of anonymity. The diplomat reiterated the Turkish position, however, saying Ankara’s conditions for restoring diplomatic ties – an apology for the flotilla raid and compensation to its victims – had not changed.
“Our expectations [from Israel] for the normalization of relations are obvious,” President Abdullah Gul said Monday at a joint press conference in Ankara with visiting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Some current speculation suggests that Israel may express a humanitarian apology in the report the Israeli government will send to the U.N. committee investigating the flotilla incident. If this is the case, Sinirlioglu’s meeting with the Israeli representative holds special significance. Ciechanover was selected by the Netanyahu government to represent the country on the U.N. committee and was also sent to Geneva at the personal request of the Israeli prime minister. Neither Turkish nor Israeli sources confirmed that an apology is in the works.
Turkey and Israel have each dispatched one representative to the U.N. committee tasked with reviewing reports that resulted from national investigations of the flotilla incident, which left nine Turks dead. Turkey has submitted its national report to the committee, while Israel has not. The U.N. panel is expected to release its report by February.
Diplomatic sources said the climate was different Monday than it was during the first attempt at rapprochement following the flotilla incident, the secret talks in June between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Israeli Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who champions maintaining friendly ties with Ankara.
“The time is different now,” a diplomatic source said, adding that the fact that Netanyahu launched a personal initiative to promote diplomatic ties with Turkey is a reason to be optimistic.
Others claim, however, that the leaking of the “secret” Geneva talks to the press is an attempt by right-wing Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to block the reconciliation process. A similar effort occurred at the June meeting where the two sides were working on the text of an apology, but failed because of a split in views within the Israeli government, Turkish diplomats said at the time. Other sources familiar with the issue said there was no text or letter for apology at that time, only Turkish demands for one, and that the Israeli government was not ready to restore ties with Ankara.
One source asserted that Turkey’s fire-fighting has created a reason for optimism. “We have seen similar examples in the past, including the earthquake diplomacy between Turkey and Greece, the football diplomacy between Turkey and Armenia and the ping-pong diplomacy between China and the United States, all of which helped reduce diplomatic tensions between countries,” Mensur Akgun, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kultur University, told the Daily News.
“Fires and earthquakes are tragic events, but sometimes they become an opportunity for diplomacy. Neither Turkey nor Israel is pleased with the current course of relations,” Akgun said. “I hope relations return to normal without any delay once Israel complies with the Turkish conditions.”
Others say Israel cannot meet Turkish demands as long as Lieberman is involved in the Israeli government. “If Turkey keeps its ultimate demands, I do not think Netanyahu’s government will be able to deliver, especially not with Foreign Minister Lieberman in it. But also Mr. Netanyahu won’t do it as is,” said Chico Menashe, the Israeli correspondent for Channel 10.
“It has to be a give and take. And bringing an ambassador back to its office in Tel Aviv is not enough. Turkey should find a new formula that Israelis could bear,” Menashe said. Turkey recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv after the flotilla raid.
Netanyahu launched an initiative to restore bilateral ties with his country’s longtime regional ally after a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Friday. In the conversation, the Israeli leader expressed his hopes that the Turkish fire-fighting assistance would be a gateway to improving bilateral relations.
“The Turkish assistance is a very blessed act. I know that Prime Minister Erdogan has decided on it personally. Israel will find a way to express its gratitude for the Turkish assistance,” Netanyahu told the Israeli press following his telephone conversation with Erdogan in the initial signal that the Israeli government might be willing to use the opportunity posed by the disaster to normalize its troubled ties with Ankara. Netanyahu followed up his comments by sending Ciechanover to Geneva to meet with Sinirlioglu on Sunday.
Though Erdogan decided personally to send the planes to Israel in coordination with the Foreign Ministry, he said the same day that Turkey’s humanitarian assistance should not be mixed up with other things and reiterated Ankara’s well-known position on renewing ties.