x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Turkey in threat to sever ties with Israel

Rift grows as Turkish foreign minister says airspace ban on military flights may be extended to civilian aircraft.

ISTANBUL // Turkey will completely sever ties with its long-time ally Israel if it does not apologise for the botched commando raid on an aid ship in which nine people died. "They have three options," Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, said. "Either they apologise, or they accept an international commission and its report, or relations will be broken off."

That would mean that Turkey, which was among the first countries to recognise the Jewish state in the late 1940s, would halt diplomatic relations with Israel. But a Turkish government official told the Reuters news agency the foreign minister's words had been misrepresented. The official said Ankara's position was that it would be very difficult or impossible to repair bilateral ties with Israel unless Ankara's previously stated demands were met. Israel has already rejected an international inquiry and immediately rejected Turkey's ultimatum. "We don't have any intention to apologise," Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, said. Mr Davutoglu said Turkey had also decided to ban all Israeli military planes from Turkish airspace. Last week two Israeli planes were denied permission to use Turkey's airspace, but foreign ministry officials insisted that this did not constitute a blanket ban.

In a further sign of escalation, Mr Davutoglu said Turkey could extend the ban to civilian flights. "If they do not take steps, Israel's isolation will go on," he said. "We know what we want. Turkey will follow this matter until our demands are met." He said there was no deadline on Ankara's demands, but added: "We will not wait for ever." The harsh tone of Mr Davutoglu's statement is something of a surprise. Only last week he met Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Israel's trade minister, to find ways to repair the relationship. "Something is going wrong," Semih Idiz, a foreign policy columnist with the Milliyet daily newspaper, said.

As an aspiring regional power, Turkey says it wants to have good relations with all countries in its vicinity, but the crisis with Israel has raised doubts about whether that aim is realistic. "Ankara has alienated a key player" in the region, Mr Idiz said. Both sides might find it increasingly difficult to climb down from their rhetoric, he added, as they do not want to appear weak to their voters at home. "They are victims of their own domestic politics."

Turkey and Israel have been close allies for decades, but relations have soured in recent years, particularly over Israel's actions in the Gaza Strip. In January 2009, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, walked off a stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, after an angry exchange with the Israeli president, Simon Peres, over Israel's war in Gaza. On May 31, Israeli soldiers stormed a flotilla of ships with aid for Gaza, organised by an Islamic charity based in Turkey. Eight Turkish activists and one Turkish-American man on board the main ship of the flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, were killed by Israeli soldiers. Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel after the raid and cancelled several military exercises. Since the raid on the Mavi Marmara, the two governments have accused each other of behaving recklessly. Mr Erdogan said Israel had engaged in "state terror" and Israel said Turkey's behaviour strengthened fears that Ankara was turning away from the West and towards Islamic countries under the religiously conservative Erdogan government. Although emotions are running high on both sides, the meeting between Mr Davutoglu and Mr Ben-Eliezer is not the only sign of efforts to defuse the situation. In an interview with the Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet, Mr Davutoglu appeared to signal that Turkey may accept the outcome of an Israeli inquiry as opposed to an international probe. The important things were that Israel should issue an apology and pay compensation to the relatives of the victims, he said. "It is not important according to which commission report this will be done." With a trade volume of around $3 billion a year, Israel is not among Turkey's most important commercial partners, but bilateral relations include key defence industry ties, which Turkey so far has tried to shield from the crisis. Worried about the growing rift between two important allies, the United States is trying to mediate between Turkey and Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is to meet Barack Obama, the US president, in Washington today. Ankara has said Mr Obama wants to bring up the Gaza crisis in his meeting. tseibert@thenational.ae