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Apology in the Middle East Is a Weapon, or 'Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word'

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One day before the publication of the UN report on the Israeli-Turkish conflict, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister has issued a 24 hour ultimatum to Israel to "apologize, or else..." The Turkish foreign minister has demanded Israel's contrition for the May 2010 raid on the MV Mavi Marmara, a Turkish civilian vessel that together with five other vessels tried to break Israel's blockade on Gaza. The objective of the blockade was to prevent smuggling of arms and ammunition used for the continued indiscriminate shelling of Israeli towns. The "Flotilla" operation cost nine lives including eight Turkish citizens when Israeli Navy SEALs boarded the Marmara, and a violent battle ensued.

Israel and Turkey have both agreed to the appointment of a Panel of Inquiry on the incident by the UN Secretary-General. The Panel was led by the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Geoffrey Palmer, and the outgoing President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, as Vice-Chair. The Panel had two additional members, one each from Israel and Turkey.

Turkey demanded an official Israeli apology, payment of compensation to the victims' relatives and lifting the blockade on Gaza. Davutoglu tells Zaman, a Turkish newspaper that the deadline for an apology for death of eight Turks "is the day the UN report gets released, or we resort to Plan B." The report was published on September 2, 2011.

"Plan B" refers to a threat made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that without an Israeli apology Turkey would downgrade ties with Israel and aggressively oppose it in international forums. Erdogan has also threatened to cut economic ties as part of that "Plan B."
However, just over a year ago, in an article published on Sunday, July 4, 2010 Ahmet Davutoglu told the Turkish daily Hurriyet: "Israelis have three options: They will either apologize or acknowledge an international-impartial inquiry and its conclusion. Otherwise, our diplomatic ties will be cut off." Israel accepted the international inquiry. However, when it became apparent that the leaked results of the inquiry did not favor Turkey, the Turkish government quickly changed course and demands an apology instead. Under public international law, Israel has a right of self-defense even while a foreign vessel does not enter her territorial waters. It is noteworthy that recently, Greece stopped several boats from leaving its harbors when it learned that they intended to attempt to break the blockade on Gaza.

What's the Turkish rush? Why was Turkey accelerating its pressure on Israel? The answer lies within the findings of the Palmer Report. The report found that under international law, Israel's naval blockade of Gaza is justified. At the same time the report found Israel's use of force in stopping the Turkish vessel was excessive and unacceptable.

The report says in its opening paragraphs, "Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza," And, "The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law." The report criticized the flotilla, asserting that it "acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade." The report indicated that while the majority of the hundreds of people aboard the six vessels had no violent intention, that could not be said of IHH, the Turkish group that organized the flotilla: "There exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH."

Israel repeatedly refused to apologize, but was willing to express "regret for the loss of life" and offer financial compensation to the families of the dead. Even the latter gesture was not easily made, since Israel's public opinion objected to any compensation to families of well-trained activists who tried to kill the raiding SEALS that attempted only to stop the vessel. The SEALS were armed only with pistols for self-defense. Seven of the SEALS ended up in an Israeli hospital. Israel claimed that the Turkish casualties were well trained and uniformed activists armed with knives, at least one gun and metal rods cut from the ship fences and dressed in protective gear.

Apparently, Turkey's demand for an apology from Israel was countered by a demand that Turkey apologize to the Kurds in Iraq. Reuters has reported on Aug 26, 2011 that lawmakers in Iraqi Kurdistan demanded neighboring Turkey to apologize for a week of air strikes across their border and called for a closure of Turkish military bases inside Iraqi territory. Tensions have flared between Turkey and Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region after local officials reported a Turkish air strike killed seven civilians on Sunday, triggering protests in the capital Arbil and other towns. Turkey launched its first strikes in more than a year on suspected Kurdish PKK rebel bases in Iraq after more than 40 members of its security forces were killed in Turkey over the last month in PKK assaults.

No Turkish apology has been issued to date despite the cross border airstrikes that killed seven civilians. A double standard?

Why does Turkey need to hear the words "We are sorry"? After all, they are just words. Why does Israel refuse to utter them and move on? Because an apology will not be enough. Erdogan wants also the lifting of the naval blockade. Israel cannot agree to waive its right of self-defense now officially recognized by a UN Panel, and expose its citizens to rocket shelling, just because Erdogan wants to show that when he flexes a muscle Israel bows. When the deadline for an apology passed and the report made public, Turkey has announced that the Israeli ambassador is "expelled." However, the Israeli ambassador's original term was set to expire in two weeks, and he's in Israel on vacation. That also means that Turkey will not accept a new ambassador and the relationship would be through lower level diplomats.

There are cold political calculations in Turkey's seemingly petty demands. Turkey is embroiled in a race for leadership in the Muslim world, in subtle and not so subtle competition with Iran. When Turkey's attempts to join the EU were rebuffed and their alliance with Syria collapsed last year, Erdogan found a new ladder to climb to the top: threaten Israel, hoping that by getting Israel on its knees by offering an apology and lifting the blockade, he will receive recognition that he and Turkey are the new anointed kings on the block. I can almost hear him announcing to the cheering crowd in the city square, if Israel apologized and lifts the blockade, "Until now, nobody has managed to force Israel to put its head down and beg for mercy, nobody before has got Israel to its knees, it is I and Turkey who did that. Next, we will liberate Jerusalem and Palestine."

Israel could offer he listen to Elton John's song "Sorry seems to be the hardest word," that includes the lyric "It's sad, so sad, and it's getting more and more absurd." Why absurd? Because Erdogan is making yet another policy mistake. He further alienates the U.S and EU by appearing to be an unreasonable and unpredictable leader, not admirable traits for someone angling for foreign political recognition. He is also risking his country's multibillion military procurement agreements with Israel. The Turkish military will soon find itself at a stand-still without Israeli continued technical support and spare parts. Obviously, Israel stands to lose these continued sales as well.

But in the Middle East where honor is worth more than money and is a political weapon both sides hold, the Israeli-Turkish future relationship seem bleak.