World and Nation

Israel and Turkey negotiate compensation in flotilla raid

JERUSALEM — Talks here Monday between Israeli and Turkish officials over compensation for a deadly Israeli commando raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla almost three years ago demonstrated that while relations between the two countries are improving, they will not be as warm as they once were.

The Turkish delegation, led by the undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Feridun Hadi Sinirlioglu, was the highest level diplomatic mission to visit Israel since relations were frozen. But the Turks kept a low profile and the sides put out a brief statement revealing little about the discussions other than to say that an agreement was near.

Israeli officials and analysts say they do not see a return to the intimate Israeli-Turkish alliance of past decades, when the Israeli, Turkish and U.S. navies carried out joint exercises in the Mediterranean and Israeli fighter jets trained in Turkey’s relatively vast airspace.

Yet bilateral trade is thriving and in recent months Turkish exporters have started using Israel as a trade corridor, with Turkish shipping lines docking in Israeli ports, then transporting goods overland to Jordan and other Arab countries in order to bypass the bloody civil war in Syria.

“This is not so much about going back to the old alliance,” said Gallia Lindenstrauss, an expert on Turkey at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, “but about lowering the level of hostility between the two countries.”

Israeli officials view the trade corridor as an important, even strategic, development. Lindenstrauss said it showed Turkish recognition of Israel as a stable partner when much of the Middle East is in turmoil.

Any improvement in the atmosphere between the leaders, she added, would be likely to contribute to increased cooperation at the unofficial level.

Turkey used to be Israel’s closest ally in the region and its most important partner in the Muslim world. But relations began to sour over Israel’s three-week offensive against the Hamas militant group controlling Gaza in the winter of 2008-09, which came after years of rocket fire by Gaza militants against southern Israel.

Up to 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the campaign, hundreds of them civilians, and the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused Israel of attempted genocide.

The strategic partnership plummeted further in May 2010 when eight Turks and an American of Turkish descent were killed after Israeli commandos met resistance aboard a vessel seeking to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Turkey sharply downgraded its diplomatic and military ties with Israel in September 2011, angrily expelling the Israeli ambassador after Israel refused to apologize.

President Barack Obama brokered Turkish-Israeli reconciliation when he visited Israel in March, urging renewed cooperation between the two important U.S. allies as the deterioration in Syria threatened to spill over and destabilize the broader region.

As part of the agreement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel officially apologized for operational mistakes that led to deaths in the raid and promised compensation and a further easing of restrictions on Gaza. Once the terms of compensation have been reached, Israel and Turkey are meant to normalize ties and dispatch envoys to each other’s nations.

But few here expect a drastic turnaround in military cooperation.

More likely, an Israeli official said, was a sharing of assessments and intelligence on the Syrian issue, perhaps not bilaterally, but in a regional framework, with Jordan, presided over by the United States.

“The apology was not an easy decision for Israel,” said another Israeli official, who also asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “The prime minister took the decision in order to restore the relationship and create a normalcy in relations. It is our hope that the Turks will respond in kind.”

In view of the potentially explosive situation in Syria and grave concern about the chemical weapons stockpiles there, he added, “we would like ideally to have a more open and honest conversation with the Turks about how to meet these challenges.”

At the same time, trade between the two countries peaked at $4 billion in 2011, split almost evenly between imports and exports, according to Israel’s Ministry of Economy, up from $300 million in 1997 after a free trade arrangement was signed.

A ministry report said that private trade was not affected by the flotilla episode, although government and defense contracts had dropped off.