(Mint Press)— A Turkish court has indicted four former Israeli generals for their alleged roles in orchestrating the 2010 raid of the Mavi Marmara or Gaza Freedom Flotilla– a Turkish aid ship sailing to the blockaded Gaza strip. The four generals were given life sentences following the commando raid that left 9 civilians dead and several dozen injured. The former generals are unlikely to serve their sentences as they can only be arrested should they enter Turkey. However, the largely symbolic indictment contributes to the ongoing decay of once robust relations between Israel and Turkey.
Turkey expands ties to the Arab world
On Thursday, a Turkish lawyer reported that Israel had offered a $6 million settlement to the victims of the raid. If accepted, this would effectively end the lawsuit launched against the Israeli military for their reported misconduct.
The exhaustive 144 page indictment of the generals was delivered after some 600 people were interviewed, many of them survivors of the incident. In 2010, A Turkish aid ship bound for the blockaded Gaza strip was intercepted by Israeli commandos in international waters. The incident represented a low-point in the mostly cordial relationship Israel and Turkey have held since 1949.
The fallout has had numerous negative repercussions for relations. In September of last year Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the Arab League in Cairo, Egypt, delivering a combative set of warnings. Speaking in reference to the Mavi Marmara, Erdogan said that Israel “must pay the price for the crimes it committed.”
Ankara has demanded an apology for the incident as a prerequisite for resuming normal relations. Israel has “expressed regret” over the incident but has stopped short of offering a full apology. As a result, Turkey decided to downgraded diplomatic ties and suspended joint military operations shortly before Erdogan’s address in September 2011.
The subsequent Palmer report conducted by the United Nations found both the flotilla passengers and the Israeli military to have used excessive and unnecessary force. According to the independent investigation, Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010 and were met with violent resistance. Passengers used makeshift weapons to attack the soldiers after Israeli commandos fired live rounds before boarding and during their incursion with the passengers. Already facing international scrutiny for the 2008 war in Gaza, Israeli misconduct in the Mavi Marmara incident threatens to permanently derail fragile Turkish-Israeli relations.
The Mavi Marmara was part of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, an initiative by international activists aimed at breaking the blockade of the Gaza strip and delivering food aid to Palestinian citizens. Since the election of the militant Islamist Hamas party in 2006, Israel has maintained a blockade of the coastal enclave. While the Israeli government maintains that the blockade is a legitimate security action needed to curb the flow of illegal weapons, the restriction on the flow of goods has slowed the economy and hurt the civilian population according rights group Amnesty International.
Eighty percent of Gazan families rely on some kind of food aid, and nearly 300,000 people live in dire poverty, according to the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA).
The flotilla incident, along with the blockade of Gaza has strained Israel’s limited relations with the Arab world as well. On Wednesday and Thursday, Egyptians went to the polls in the first democratic elections in the nation’s history. With strong showings in earlier Parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood and conservative Salafist groups could be poised to seize the presidency as well.
While economic issues and domestic security are expected to be major issues of concern for Egyptian voters, limited talk of re-examining the 1979 peace treaty with Israel has chilled relations between the two countries. A September 2011 attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo exacerbated the growing divide between the two countries.
Iranian nuclear issue
Of concern for all countries in the region is the ongoing Iranian nuclear issue. Leaders of the P5+1 meet this week in Baghdad to discuss the standoff between Iran and the West. The P5+1 consists of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany. These nations are expected to put forward a proposal calling for an immediate halt to uranium enrichment in exchange for an easing of sanctions.
Although absent from these meetings, Turkey has previously played an integral role in facilitating dialogue on the Iranian nuclear issue. Last month, meetings in Istanbul helped advance talks, with both sides agreeing to a step-by-step blueprint for eventual Iranian disarmament. The agreement included provisions for a peaceful Iranian nuclear energy program monitored by Western countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Ahead of the follow-up meeting in Baghdad, Turkish President Abdullah Gul welcomed the multilateral meetings saying, “In any circumstance, when we look at the alternatives we have, there is no other option than working to facilitate deeper and meaningful dialogue to solve the problem.”
Speaking to a conference on “Turkey’s Economic and Foreign Policy Priorities”, Gul openly expressed opposition to any military intervention in a statement to the Tehran Times saying, “It is impossible to find a military solution to Iran’s nuclear problem. Such a move will make the problem at hand only worse and create new zones of conflict.”
Although the U.S. and Iran remain far apart on a number of issues, the use of dialogue and sanctions stands in opposition to previous statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. While many within Israel are opposed to war, the Likud government has not spared words, with leaders frequently promoting a preemptive strike against Iran.
Representing the more hawkish establishment, Netanyahu has accused Iran of buying time with negotiations that have not produced any tangible results. Commenting after a meeting in the Czech Republic last week, Netanyahu has said that Iran is using talks just to “buy time, pretty much as North Korea did for years…going from meeting to meeting with empty promises.” Netanyahu added, “Iran is very good in playing this chess game,” in a statement to the Associated Press.
Turkey has taken a more proactive approach in shaping diplomatic policies. As a key NATO ally, and European Union hopeful, Turkey has emerged as an important player in the region.
The rift though, is not merely limited to political issues, as Israel’s involvement in developing the Leviathan Gas field has incensed Ankara, further destabilizing the relationship.
Contested Mediterranean gas reserves
Further exacerbating the fraying of relations between the two nations has been the discovery of contested natural gas reserves in June 2010. The oil discovered near southern Cyprus has put the island nation at odds with the Turkish state.
Turkey remains the only country in the world that has recognized the mostly Turkish north of Cyprus as an independent country. Since the discovery, South Cyprus has unilaterally expressed interest in drilling without the inclusion of the north.
The gas reserves hold an estimated 6.5 trillion cubic feet of gas in a triangular slice of ocean floor between Israel and Cyprus. The Israel Land Development Co. Energy Ltd. has a 47 percent stake in the offshore reserves and drilling could begin as early as next month, according to Bloomberg financial news.
According to reports, the reserves could be the largest finding of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Speaking about the prospect of drilling, Ohad Marani, CEO of the Israel Land Development Co., was upbeat, saying, “I am very optimistic about starting to drill in the first days of June, we believe we have very substantial blocks with huge potential, mainly for natural gas, but also for oil.”
Turkey, not surprisingly, has roundly condemned the project, threatening to cut off any company that does business with Southern Cyprus. “Companies that cooperate with (Greek Cypriots) will not be included in future energy projects in Turkey,” the Foreign Ministry wrote in an emailed statement.
A number of multinational corporations, including French oil major Total, Malaysia’s Petronas, Korea’s Kogas, Eni of Italy, Russia’s Novatak, Australia’s Woodside Energy Holdings and many others have bids for contracts and could be involved in the future development of the oil and gas reserves according to the Turkish news publication, Today’s Zaman.
The ongoing oil dispute has as much to do with resources, as it does with recognition of an independent Northern Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot community.
Commenting further, the Foreign Ministry commented stated that, “The Turkish Cypriots have the same, indissoluble rights as Greek Cypriots to the natural resources of the island’s continental shelf,” it said. “Both communities must decide together how maritime natural gas and oil resources will be used.”
Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and unilaterally declared the Northern part of the island to be a sovereign state after forcefully evicting 180,000 Greek Cypriots. Today, Turkey is the only country to recognize the unilateral declaration of sovereignty by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The declaration, and subsequent occupation, by some 150,000 Turkish settlers is against the Geneva Convention and UN provisions.