TEL AVIV // Turkey has conducted secret talks with Israel to jointly persuade the United Nations to soften a report that criticises both countries for last year's Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, Israeli media reported yesterday.
The UN document, expected to be released in the next few weeks, will focus on Israel's attack on a Turkish ship in May 2010 that was leading a six-vessel flotilla hoping to break Israel's blockade of Gaza. Nine Turkish citizens died in the raid, deepening diplomatic rifts between Israel and Turkey.
The talks are the latest sign of a possible warming of relations between Israel and what was once its closest Muslim ally.
Last week the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, sent a letter to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, congratulating him on winning re-election earlier this month.
Israeli and Turkish media reported that the Israeli vice prime minister, Moshe Yaalon, last week secretly met Feridun Sinirlioglu, the undersecretary of the Turkish foreign ministry, in Geneva to improve the ties. Representatives from the two countries on the UN's committee of inquiry into the raid have also been conveying messages from their respective governments.
Even so, the renewed contacts may be jeopardised by another aid convoy that plans to make its way to Gaza as soon as this week. The new flotilla is meant to challenge Israel's tight restrictions on the coastal territory.
Israel imposed a siege on Gaza in 2006, after militants abducted an Israeli soldier in a cross-border attack and have since held him captive in the Hamas-ruled enclave. Israel controls Gaza's airspace, territorial waters and all of its land border crossings, except for Rafah, which is managed by Egypt.
Although Egypt has recently opened its crossing more frequently, and Israel has eased some restrictions, activists claim the tiny strip of more than 1.5 million inhabitants is still suffering from the effects of the blockade.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and several governments have warned the flotilla not to sail. The US has cautioned its citizens against taking part in the protest, saying it would be irresponsible and risky.
The flotilla suffered a blow on June 17 when the Turkish group that was viewed as the driving force behind the plan, IHH, announced that the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship on which the nine activists were killed last year, would not take part.
Israel has insisted it will prevent the convoy from reaching Gaza. Last week, its navy conducted a wide-ranging drill on the takeover of a large ship in preparation for a possible clash with the flotilla. Israel came under fierce international criticism last year for its part in the violent incident on the Mavi Marmara.
Turkey's role in the attack and its relationship with the IHH has also drawn condemnation. Both countries received a draft of the UN report on the causes of the raid, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported yesterday.
The document is expected to blast Israel for using disproportionate force when its commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara. It recommends that Israel pay compensation to the families of those who were killed or injured in the assault. Israel has already agreed to do so.
Turkey insists that relations with Israel will not be rehabilitated unless Israel publicly apologises for the attack. Ozdem Sanberk, Turkey's representative on the UN panel, told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet last week that Turkey would also accept if Israel admitted to an "operational failure". He added that Turkey, which in the past has been viewed as a mediator between Israel and Arab countries, could lose its influence in the region if the crisis was not solved.
Mr Netanyahu has rejected the Turkish demand, saying Israel is willing only to express regret over the loss of life. Analysts say Israel is concerned that an apology would indicate that it deserves blame for the deaths.