Erdogan backtracks on understandings with Netanyahu

Day after Israeli PM’s apology phone call, Turkish leader says it’s not yet time to drop case against 4 IDF generals over Marmara deaths, won’t send new envoy yet, will visit Gaza

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses lawmakers in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (photo credit: AP)
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses lawmakers in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (photo credit: AP)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to backtrack Saturday on understandings reached with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a dramatic US-brokered phone call Friday on healing ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.

Erdogan said Saturday it was too early to cancel legal steps against Israeli soldiers who took part in the raid on the Mavi Mamara.

According to the Hurriyet daily, Erdogan also said the exchange of ambassadors between Israel and Turkey would not take place immediately.

“We will see what will be put into practice during the process. If [the Israelis] move forward in a promising way, we will make our contribution. Then, there would be an exchange of ambassadors,” Erdogan was quoted as saying, in remarks at an opening ceremony for a high-speed railway line in the central Turkish province of Eskişehir.

Erdogan said that, in the past, Israel had “expressed sorrow and regret several times, refusing to offer a formal apology” over the killings of nine Turkish citizens of the Marmara in 2010 — the incident that led to the freezing of Israeli-Turkish ties. However, Ankara had “insisted on an apology,” he said.

That apology had finally been delivered by Netanyahu on Friday, he said. “All our demands have now been met with that apology which was offered the way we wanted,” Erdogan said in comments communicated by Today’s Zaman. The conditions now created represented a unique opportunity “for peace in the Middle East,” he also said.

Netanyahu’s office had stated after the call Friday that “The two men agreed to restore normalization between Israel and Turkey, including the dispatch of ambassadors and the cancellation of legal steps against IDF soldiers.”

Erdogan also announced plans to visit Gaza, possibly next month, and the West Bank too. Asked about an Erdogan visit to Gaza, Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser, Yaakov Amidror said late Saturday “Israel has nothing to be ashamed of” in Gaza, and that Erdogan would have to explain to the international community why he wanted good relations with “the terrorist organization” — Hamas — which controls the Strip.

Hamas’s Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, calling Netanyahu’s apology “a diplomatic victory for Ankara,” confirmed Erdogan would visit “in the near future,” and said this trip would mark “a significant step to ending the political and economic blockade” of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Erdogan told reporters that it wasn’t yet time to talk about dropping the case in which four IDF generals stand accused of war crimes over the incident. The indictment, prepared last summer, sought ten aggravated life sentences for each officer ostensibly involved in the 2010 raid — including former chief of the IDF General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former head of military intelligence Amos Yadlin.

The Marmara was part of a May 2010 flotilla seeking to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza — imposed to prevent weapons imports by Hamas for use against Israel. Israeli naval commandos were attacked as they sought to commandeer the vessel on May 30 as it neared Gaza, and they killed nine Turkish citizens as they fought off attackers wielding clubs and iron bars.

In November, IHH vice president Husein Oruch had told Today’s Zaman that “Turkey is the first country in the world that will take the unlawful Israeli actions to court,” adding that the trial was “a very significant case because today will mark the day that the untouchable image of Israel will be damaged.”

Despite the formal apology issued by Netanyahu on Friday in the presence of US President Barack Obama, Erdogan’s Saturday statement indicated that Ankara was not entirely prepared to let bygones be bygones. He stressed that during his conversation with him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised to improve the humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian territories.

“I accepted the apology in the name of the Turkish people,” Erdogan was quoted as saying, adding that he was planning to visit Gaza in April.

“I may eventually visit Gaza and the West Bank in April. This visit would take place in the context of a general effort to contribute to the resolution process,” the Hurriyet daily quoted Erdogan as saying.

Erdogan also reportedly said he had talks with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the apology negotiation process with Israel.

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