Soured relations between Turkey and Israel are likely to receive another blow this week with the beginning of a controversial trial in a Turkish court against four Israeli generals for killing pro-Palestinian activists.
The Israeli generals are charged with commanding a deadly raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla, which attempted to break Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip two years ago. The raid killed nine Turkish citizens aboard one of the ships.
Testimony begins in an Istanbul court on Tuesday in the trial of four senior Israeli commanders for their alleged responsibility in the deadly raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010. The prosecutor has called for each of the four Israeli officers to face nine life sentences. The commanders, including the Chief of the General Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, are to be tried in absentia.
Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli Army Chief of Staff, is among those being tried in absentia
Israel has already dismissed the case as a "unilateral judicial process" and refused to cooperate. Many experts also question whether the Turkish criminal court has jurisdiction on the matter. But the Mavi Marmara activists and the families of the victims have big expectations.
“This will be a historic trial,” said Gulden Sonmez, a lawyer and board member of the Islamic charity IHH, whose members were killed during the raid. “Those responsible for the crimes against humanity will be held responsible,” she stressed. “This is certainly not a symbolic trial. If found guilty, these Israeli commanders can be arrested anywhere in the world through an Interpol Arrest Order,” Sonmez claimed.
The Turkish court has already issued summonses for the Israeli commanders for the trial this week and, according to the lawyers, the court could issue a warrant for their arrest after the first hearings, where 490 witnesses from 37 countries are slated to testify.
Activists are expecting that the trial will expand further in the coming weeks with legal proceedings against dozens of Israeli military and civilian personnel involved the raid. They are convinced that the trial will finally bring justice and also drive the Israeli government into a corner on its Gaza policies.
Israeli President Shimon Peres made an official state visit to Turkey in 2007
Despite the big expectations, however, observers view the legal validity of the trial and the practical imposition of the penalty highly questionable. But, media has speculated that Israel has told more than 150 Israeli officials and soldiers related to the Mavi Marmara incident not to travel abroad, where they could face the risk of being arrested and extradited to Turkey.
Two years ago, human rights activists from 37 countries attempted to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza with the Mavi Marmara flotilla. The campaign was sponsored by the Islamic Turkish charity IHH, which has enjoyed close relations with the Turkish government. The Israeli military's operation to stop the flotilla in international waters ended in bloodshed. 9 Turkish activists were killed and 30 other injured.
After the flotilla raid Turkish-Israeli ties nose-dived. Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador, downgraded diplomatic relations and suspended military ties. UN-led efforts to investigate the incident, and diplomatic attempts to reach a settlement between the two countries, have failed.
Turkey's 3 conditions
Turkey's Islamic-conservative AKP government has demanded a formal apology and compensation for the families of the victims, as well as steps to end the blockade of Gaza.
“If Israel wants to normalize relations with its greatest friend in the Islamic world, it has to meet all of these three conditions,” said Egemen Bagis, Turkey's EU minister and a close aide to Prime Minister Erdogan, in Berlin on Wednesday. “We are not happy with the worsening relations with Israel. But we are very sensitive on this issue,” Bagis said.
Old partners, new rivals
The deterioration of ties between Turkey and Israel has been a growing concern for the US administration and European governments.
Prime Minister Erdogan even visited Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in 2005.
Turkey and Israel enjoyed special and close relations for more than a half-century, despite various ups and downs. Turkey had been the first majority Muslim country to officially recognize Israel and open an embassy in Tel-Aviv. Ankara has also mediated for closer relations between Israel and other Muslim countries.
During the 1990's, Turkey and Israel pursued close ties in defense projects, with Israeli companies offering technology, which Ankara could not have easily obtained from the United States or elsewhere. Close relations continued in the early years of the Islamic-conservative AKP government. Erdogan mediated between the Israeli and Syrian leaders Ehud Olmert and Bashar Assad, but a two-year long effort by Ankara collapsed with an Israeli operation into Gaza in 2009. This was a turning point in Turkish-Israeli relations. Erdogan expressed great frustration with Israel when then-Prime Minister Olmert started a Gaza offensive only days after his key visit to Ankara. Relations received another major blow with the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010.
During the 1990's, Israeli companies had been among the leading contractors of Turkey's strategic defense and modernization projects, reaching billions of US dollars. With the rising political tensions between the two countries all military agreements and defense cooperation was suspended, including work on a strategic aerial intelligence system.
Turkey has blocked NATO's closer cooperation with Israel, while the Israeli government moved to develop ties with two rivals of Turkey in the region, the Greek-Cypriot-led Republic of Cyprus and Greece. The strong Israeli lobby in the US also retracted its traditional support of Turkey, which put Ankara in a more difficult position on various foreign policy issues.
Political tensions between the two countries also affected public opinion in a negative way. In 2008, 560,000 Israeli tourists visited Turkey. But following the Gaza incursion and the Mavi Marmara incidents, this number dropped precipitously to just 80,000 last year.
The Turkish-Israeli dispute has caused serious damage to political ties, defense relations and tourism, but surprisingly mutual trade has increased significantly between the two countries. Bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel surpassed $4.4 billion (3.38 billion euros) last year.
Both Turkish and Israeli diplomats agree that cooperation in various fields is clearly in the interest of both countries. But domestic politics continue to play an important role, limiting the maneuvering room for making steps toward reconciliation.
Need for political change
“We think that the Erdogan government has abandoned good relations with Israel at the expense of increasing Turkey's influence in the Arab world,” an Israeli diplomat told DW, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “But repairing relations between the two countries is now in the best interest of the two countries. This is even more evident with the new challenges in the region,” he stressed, referring to the Syria crisis. “I am confident that we will soon find a way to repair our ties.”
Many observers believe Erdogan's harsh rhetoric and policies against the Israeli government has contributed to growing sympathy for him on the Arab street, strengthening Turkey's influence in the region. Erdogan is the most popular leader among six Muslim-majority countries, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. Erdogan received a 65-percent approval rating in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Pakistan.
While Israeli diplomats view Turkey's changing priorities and policies in the region as an obstacle to mending ties between the two countries, Turkish diplomats see Israeli domestic politics responsible for the current impasse. “Following several rounds of negotiations, Turkey and Israel's authorized negotiators reached an agreement on the basic framework for steps towards normalization,” a senior Turkish diplomat told DW speaking on condition of anonymity. “But Israeli politicians could not show political courage, they did not approve this” he added.
Now, in Ankara all eyes are on the elections in Israel, set for January, the outcome of which diplomats think may positively affect Turkish-Israeli reconciliation. Another important factor will be Erdogan's policies. Whether he will take major steps toward mending ties with Israel is still not clear, but he has already made it clear that he is determined to continue his efforts to ease the blockade on Gaza.
Erdogan told journalists on a plane en route to Ankara from Berlin that he had plans to visit Gaza soon; a plan that is likely to draw Israeli anger. The prime minister said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had asked him (on Wednesday) to take steps to normalize ties with Israel and he reiterated the Turkish position: “All our three demands must be realized, “ Erdogan told journalists, “Turkey is not open to options that include offering an apology and compensation, but not lifting the Gaza blockade.”