ANKARA (Hurriyet)–Intense U.S. pressure has contributed to the taking of slow reciprocal steps by Turkey and Israel to ease tensions in the severely deteriorated relationship between the two regional powers, diplomatic sources have said, the Turkish Hurriyet Daily reported Monday.
“The Americans, of course, do not want any problem between the two friends,” a senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Monday. “We told the Americans we want to overcome this problem, but Israel needs to take steps.”
Though Ankara’s message was conveyed to U.S. officials last week by a Turkish diplomatic delegation headed by Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, it was not the first attempt to mend fences behind the scenes since Israel’s deadly May 31 attack on a Turkish aid flotilla to Gaza.
During a secret meeting in Brussels in June, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Israeli Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer drafted a preliminary apology letter for the incident, a senior Turkish diplomat told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth in an interview over the weekend.
The document was not actually a letter, but a text on which the two sides were working, the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Daily News in a clarifying statement.
“There is no letter; there was work on a text. And that work began before the two ministers’ talks in Brussels. I don’t know if it was discussed in Brussels, but the effort failed because of the difference in views within the Israeli government,” the diplomat told Hurriyet.
“[The document] was only a text. Maybe Israel was going to make a verbal declaration. We don’t know. No apology has been made thus far,” the Turkish diplomat added.
The Israeli Embassy in Ankara declined to comment on the issue, but the effort to secure an apology – one of Turkey’s key demands – is believed to have been thwarted by Israel’s hard-liner foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
In the wake of the May 31 flotilla attack, which killed eight Turks and one American of Turkish descent, Turkey has laid down two conditions for restoring ties with Israel: an apology and compensation for the victims. Israel says it has already taken steps to normalize relations, including agreeing to a U.N. inquiry panel, returning the three Turkish ships boarded in the raid, transferring the aid the vessels were carrying to Gaza, easing its blockade on the Gaza Strip and removing the travel warning to Israeli visitors to Turkey.
With its two strong Middle East allies at odds, Washington has been active in urging Ankara and Tel Aviv to repair the damage from the attack and its diplomatic fallout. Through its embassy in Ankara and other channels, the United States is calling on Turkey to send some positive signals to Israel in appreciation of the steps it has already taken, the Daily News has learned.
“We told the Americans the dimensions they did not know. They think we haven’t exerted any effort. We did exert efforts, but developments took an undesired turn,” the Turkish diplomat said. “We told them this is a problem between two friends. Maybe this is the reason it cannot be resolved.”
During its visit to Washington, the Turkish delegation also met with pro-Israeli lobbies in the United States, the Daily News has learned. Ankara informed Washington of its willingness to overcome its problems with Israel, but emphasized that Israel needs to take further steps toward an apology and compensation.
“Nine people died in the end. If the steps we ask from Israel are taken, we are ready for a thaw, but Israel is not doing anything. We told the Americans to help us,” the Turkish diplomat said.
Turkey is now pinning its hopes on the U.N. panel established to investigate the flotilla crisis, which the diplomat said could come up with a formula to meet Turkish demands. “It is Israel that should take the step. If that step is taken, we’ll reciprocate,” the diplomat said.
Asked if Turkey had extended an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for an official visit to Turkey, the diplomat said it had not, but immediately added: “If the crisis is resolved in time, why not? He is welcome, but this is not an invitation.”
The same two conditions are required before Turkey returns its ambassador to Tel Aviv, who was recalled to Ankara after the Israeli raid, the diplomat said. “Nothing can happen unless they are met.”