Netanyahu: 'Our vital interests are advanced by this deal'

Ending years of rancor, Israel and Turkey reboot relationship

Israel to pay $20m compensation for families of Mavi Marmara dead in deal renewing full diplomatic ties; ambassadors to return soon; Ankara to send aid shipment to Gaza via Ashdod this week

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu briefs the press on a reconciliation deal with Turkey on Monday, June 27, 2016 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu briefs the press on a reconciliation deal with Turkey on Monday, June 27, 2016 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Israel and Turkey announced Monday the terms of a deal ending years of diplomatic stalemate between the eastern Mediterranean countries and heralding the normalization of ties.

Addressing one of the most controversial aspects of the deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the maritime blockade on the Gaza Strip would remain in place following the deal but that Turkey would be able to send supplies to Gaza via the Israeli port of Ashdod.

Netanyahu made the comments in Rome, broadcast live in Israel, after Israel and Turkey agreed on the highly anticipated pact. His Turkish counterpart, Binali Yildirim, made a simultaneous announcement in Ankara.

The agreement would secure the “continuation of the maritime security blockade off the Gaza Strip coast,” Netanyahu said.

“This is a supreme security interest for us. I was not prepared to compromise on it,” he added. Israel says the blockade is necessary to keep out material that could be used for military purposes in the Strip, which is run by the terror group Hamas.

Netanyahu said Turkey under the deal was also committed to preventing plans for terrorism and the financing of terrorism against Israel from its territory.

The deal also stipulates that Turkey will be allowed to build a power station and desalination plant in Gaza.

“We are returning to full normalization with Turkey, including the return of ambassadors,” Netanyahu said in announcing the rapprochement.

The deal will allow Turkey to deliver aid to Palestinians living in Gaza, Yildirim told a press conference. “To this end, our first ship loaded with over 10,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid will leave for Israel’s Ashdod port on Friday.”

The deal will see the two countries exchange ambassadors “as soon as possible,” he said.

Netanyahu said Turkey would also now not act to prevent Israeli participation in international forums of which it is a member, notably including NATO.

Once tight, already frayed relations between Israel and Turkey were significantly downgraded in 2010 after Israeli commandos staged a raid on a six-ship Turkish flotilla which was trying to breach Israel’s naval blockade of the Strip.

Turksih Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announces his country's rapprochement deal with Israel on Monday, June 27, 2016 (screen capture: Channel 2)
Turksih Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announces his country’s rapprochement deal with Israel on Monday, June 27, 2016 (screen capture: Channel 2)

The commandos were violently attacked by those on board the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, and nine Turkish citizens, including one with American citizenship, were killed in the ensuing melee. A tenth died of his wounds years later. A number of Israeli soldiers were injured in the raid.

Under the deal Israel will pay $20 million (18.14 million euros) in compensation for the deaths caused in the commando raid, Yildirim confirmed. In return for the compensation, Turkey agreed not to take legal action against IDF soldiers involved in the incident.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, dismissed criticism by political opponents who denounced the paying of compensation to attackers of IDF soldiers as a national humiliation.

“Our vital interests are advanced by this deal,” he said. “I’m not entering a honeymoon. And I’m not presenting this agreement through rose-colored spectacles. But this agreement strengthens Israel.”

He said the deal could not have been done sooner, because “it took time” to achieve “the terms we needed.”

With the world and the region so volatile, he said, Israel needed to strengthen alliances with partners such as Greece, Cyprus, Russia, and now Turkey, “all this in full coordination” with its key ally, the United States.

Domestic opposition

In recent weeks the families of two soldiers whose bodies are believed to held by Hamas, and two Israelis thought to be in the captivity of the terrorist group, have campaigned for their return to be part of the deal. While no such guarantee was part of the agreement, Netanyahu said that Turkey has promised to help return the soldiers and captives from Gaza.

He said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had personally sent a letter pledging to do all he could on the matter.

Avraham Abera Mengistu, 29, a Jew of Ethiopian descent, has been held by Hamas for nearly two years. According to his family, he suffers from a mental illness and stumbled across the border into the coastal territory by accident in 2014.

A second Israeli man, a resident of a Bedouin community in the Negev, is also thought to be held by Hamas in Gaza. His name has not been released for publication. He, too, apparently crossed the border of his own volition, and has been described as mentally disabled.

Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul were killed in separate incidents during Israel’s military offensive against Hamas in the summer of 2014. Though neither body was recovered, the army has classified both soldiers as “killed in action” based on forensic evidence. Hamas has claimed that are holding the remains of the two.

Reacting to Netanyahu’s announcement of the deal, Goldin’s family said in a statement that it “abandons Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul and doesn’t include the return of their bodies from Hamas captivity.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome, Italy, June 27, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome, Italy, June 27, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“The prime minister’s declarations were hollow. He acted contrary to his promises to us,” the family, calling the accord “a bad and problematic deal.”

Another key element of the deal is the strengthening of economic cooperation between Jerusalem and Ankara. Netanyahu said the deal would give a big boost to the Israeli economy by opening the key Turkish market to Israeli natural gas exports and by providing a gateway to the European market as well.

Yildirim, however, was notably cooler on the issue. Asked if if the agreement provided for Israeli gas exports to Europe, he said, “We are talking about normalization of relations. Once the normalization starts it will be up to two countries to decide to what extent they want to cooperate and on what issues.”

Earlier Monday, Netanyahu met in Rome with US Secretary of State John Kerry, who congratulated Israel and mentioned the United States’ contribution to the detente.

“I think when President Obama came to Israel, there was a famous phone call on the tarmac of the airport to Turkey, as we tried to move things forward,” Kerry said, recalling how the president urged Netanyahu to call Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and apologize for the flotilla incident. Netanyahu’s apology to Erdogan was a key condition for the reconciliation deal.

“So this is coming full circle, and Mr. Prime Minister, I congratulate you. I know your team has been working long and hard at this. I think it’s a positive step, one of, I hope, the beginning of others,” Kerry said.

Agencies and Raphael Ahren contributed to his report.

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