Turkey confirms holding back-channel reconciliation talks with Israel

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu says Jerusalem reached out to Ankara and envoys met in Geneva

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Turkey Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (photo credit: AP/Hakan Goktepe/Turkish Foreign Ministry)
Turkey Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (photo credit: AP/Hakan Goktepe/Turkish Foreign Ministry)

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on Sunday confirmed media reports that Ankara and Jerusalem recently engaged in reconciliation talks, despite heightened tension between the two countries over Operation Pillar of Defense.

According to a report published on Sunday in Haaretz, former Foreign Ministry director Joseph Ciechanover met in Geneva last week with Turkish Foreign Ministry Director Feridun Sinirlioğlu to discuss ending the diplomatic impasse. The meeting was reportedly supposed to take place weeks ago, but was delayed.

Davutoğlu acknowledged the back-channel talks between Israel and Turkey to Turkish daily Today’s Zaman, saying they took place prior to Pillar of Defense and were initiated by Jerusalem. Turkey’s foreign minister added that Israel must meet Turkey’s demands in order for the country to mend ties.

Israel and Turkey enjoyed close diplomatic and business relations for years until a gradual deterioration accelerated over the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, in which clashes between pro-Palestinian activists and IDF soldiers aboard the Mavi Marmara resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens and several injured IDF soldiers.

Relations between Ankara and Jerusalem have since remained deeply sour, with Turkey demanding an apology and compensation for the families of those killed as a prerequisite for the renewal of ties. During last week’s operation, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lambasted Israel, calling it a “terrorist state” for bombarding the Gaza Strip.

“I say that Israel is a terrorist state, and its acts are terrorist acts,” Erdoğan charged.

Davutoğlu said Sunday that Turkey’s stance was clear and that its demands were not open to negotiation or discussion. The Netanyahu administration, which sent  Ciechanover as an envoy, has thus far refused to accede to Turkey’s demands.

A report quoted by Today’s Zaman from Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak — which is closely associated with the ruling Justice and Development Party — indicated that Turkey also demanded that Israel lift the Gaza blockade. According to Yeni Şafak, Israel reportedly indicated willingness should Turkey be a guarantor of Hamas non-belligerence. Davutoğlu did not comment on the report, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry was not available for comment.

Former Foreign Ministry director Alon Liel told The Times of Israel that “based on the fact that the situation inside Egypt is unstable again, the talks with Turkey are becoming extremely important. I believe that the possibility for an Israeli apology will emerge after the January 2013 elections.”

“The whole Gaza blockade issue looks different now after the recent ceasefire agreement with the Hamas, and this might enable a breakthrough,” Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, added.

Contrary to suggestions that Turkey was sidelined during the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire talks that ended Operation Pillar of Defense, Davutoğlu said that “Turkey took an active part in the process. There was contact with the Israeli side to end the fighting in Gaza, which was causing human suffering. If there is a possibility to end a human tragedy, Turkey will talk with anybody.”

Davutoğlu’s admission of contact with Israel outside the framework of Gaza ceasefire talks contradicted Erdoğan’s statement at the beginning of Pillar of Defense that “there is no such thing as ‘our relations’” with Israel.

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