Turkey-Israel deal reached, awaits Netanyahu’s approval

Lifting Gaza blockade, originally a key demand from Ankara, will not be part of normalization agreement, source says

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the parliamentary group meeting of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) on May 13, 2014, in Ankara. (photo credit: AFP/STR)
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the parliamentary group meeting of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) on May 13, 2014, in Ankara. (photo credit: AFP/STR)

A deal to end the four-year-old feud between Turkey and Israel is imminent and could be signed as soon as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns from his trip to Japan, The Times of Israel has learned.

Jerusalem and Ankara agree on all outstanding issues that thus far have stood in the way of an agreement to fully restore bilateral ties to their pre-Gaza flotilla level, a knowledgeable source told The Times of Israel. Now it is up to Netanyahu to make a final decision to approve the deal, the source said.

The first step in a gradual reconciliation would be the immediate exchange of ambassadors. The deal also includes a $20 million compensation package for the families of nine Turks who died aboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara in May 2010 during an Israeli commando raid to stop the vessel. However, the agreement will not mention any change to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, according to the source, who asked to remain unnamed due to the sensitive nature of the issue. Top officials in Ankara had repeatedly insisted that lifting the blockade is a key condition that needs to be fulfilled before ties can be re-normalized.

“The Turks are seeking to sign the deal with greater urgency than the Israelis,” the source said, adding that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would be ready to send an ambassador to Tel Aviv “the day after the agreement is signed.” After every prolonged conflict, “some suspicions” are sure to remain on both sides, but by and large Turkey is interested in restoring ties with Israel — “and they want it fast,” the source said.

After Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, landed a decisive victory in local elections earlier this year — which he characterized as a national referendum on his leadership — Erdoğan feels “strong enough” to agree to closer ties with Israel, the source said.

As opposed to some who believe that Turkey, under Erdoğan, is orienting itself toward radical Islam and away from the West, some Israeli Turkey experts believe that Ankara does not seek to be seen as overly affiliated with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Furthermore, Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have in recent months refrained from making anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements — a noteworthy development after a string of such comments last year raised eyebrows worldwide (for example, Turkish leaders blamed Israel for anti-government activity in their country and in Egypt, and made crass anti-Semitic statements).

Pressured by the US, Erdoğan also canceled his planned visit to Gaza last summer, another sign that Ankara is interested in improving its relationship with Jerusalem, the source said. “The Turks don’t owe us anything. They actually have some leverage over us, regarding the Marmara and Gaza. But still, they’re interested in cooperating with us.”

Turkey wants to be a regional power and shares, more or less, Israel’s views on issues such as the Iranian nuclear threat and the Syrian civil war. Ankara is also keen on extending economic ties with Israel, including the export of natural gas, the source said.

On April 27, Erdoğan said that a deal leading to “normalization” with Israel was “a matter of weeks.” Last week, Davutoğlu said that talks between the two countries had reached “a certain level” and that “problems have been substantially overcome.” However, he said that Ankara would only agree to normalize relations after Jerusalem lifted “restrictions on the whole of Palestine, including Gaza,” something the Israeli source said was not part of the deal the two sides agreed to.

On Wednesday, the Israeli embassy canceled a planned reception celebrating Israel’s 66th Independence Day due to the coal mine accident in western Turkey, which claimed the live of hundreds of workers. “The State and people of Israel share the grief of the Turkish people, pay condolences to the families of the deceased, wish speedy recovery for the wounded and hope for positive news from the ones still in the mine,” embassy spokesman Nizar Amer said in a statement.

Israel also offered assistance to Turkey, but authorities in Ankara have yet to respond to the offer.

President Shimon Peres also sent a letter of condolence to his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul.

“I wish to extend my deepest condolences, and those of the people of Israel, to your country on the tragic accident in Manisa,” Peres wrote, according to a statement from the President’s Residence. “We are all shocked at the loss of life of innocent people at work and our thoughts are with the people of Turkey. At times of tragedy we must all do what we can to help one another and we have offered Turkey whatever assistance you require at this time.

“From the Holy Land the people of Israel pray for the victims, their families, for the rescue of those still trapped and the full recovery of the injured. Please accept my heartfelt sympathy and those of the people of Israel.”

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