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Should Israel apologize to Turkey? And to Egypt?

First published in The Jerualem Post on August 21, 2011

In recent days, there has been heavy American pressure at the highest level on Israel to apologize to Turkey for the deadly results of the May 2010 “humanitarian” flotilla led by the Turkish Islamist organization IHH, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed during their violent opposition to the Israeli marines’ operation to stop their attempt to breach the Gaza blockade.

The incident has produced an unprecedented crisis in relations between Turkey and Israel, and has had a negative influence on the important US regional alliance with the two non-Arab states.

The Obama administration has tried to mediate between the two rival governments, against the backdrop of the upcoming UN Palmer report on the incident, which it seems will give legitimacy to Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and ask it to express sorrow for the tragic results.

The Erdogan government is under pressure concerning the results of the UN inquiry commission, and insists on a public apology and the payment of reparations to the Turkish victims. Otherwise, it threatens to downgrade bilateral relations and take other unspecified measures.

The Netanyahu government has decided not to bow to American or Turkish pressure concerning the apology, and to postpone its final position until the publication of the UN report.

The Israeli government, or at least part of it, is not convinced that the apology will restore relations, and is worried that the legitimacy it would give to the Turkish behavior would invite international judicial measures against Israeli politicians and military personnel.

On the highest strategic level, the US insistence on an apology stems from its shaky regional standing, as the Arab Spring seems to be leading to a more Islamist, anti-American Middle East.

Moreover, after the Western intervention in Libya produced mixed operational results and political woes for President Barack Obama at home, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government seems to be the only international actor capable of confronting the Assad regime tangled in the bloody repression of the Syrian people.

A SOBER analysis of future regional trends does not support the Obama administration’s optimistic evaluation of the results of an Israeli apology.

From the Israeli point of view, besides Erdogan’s ultimatum for it to “apologize and compensate,” there is the threat that if it “doesn’t remove the [Gaza] embargo, it is not possible for Turkey and Israeli relations to improve.”

This sine qua non condition clearly shows that Erdogan (planning to visit Gaza in the near future) is working decisively to strengthen his country’s relations with Hamas, and thus to support one of the main obstacles to a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Just two weeks ago, Usama Hamdan, responsible for Hamas’s international relations, declared during an international conference on “resistance” held in Cairo with the support of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: “The [Palestinian-Israeli] conflict will never come to an end until Israel comes to an end… We will never recognize Israel, and today I say more than that, [I say that] Israel completely doesn’t exist in our political or intellectual dictionary.”

And while Turkey lately condemned a decision to authorize the construction of more than 900 apartments in east Jerusalem, its government issued no condemnation for the deadly August 18 Palestinian terrorist attack in Israel’s South.

Ironically, the same day, the Turkish air force bombed “60 pre-determined targets belonging to the separatist [PKK] organization” in Iraq, and its artillery struck at 168 additional targets with “intense” fire.

Turkey’s firm policy in opposing the Assad regime’s repression is not so much an alignment with Western and US positions as a result of the fear that instability in Syria, the killing of so many Sunnis by an Alawite regime, and the strong revival of the Kurdish problem and PKK terrorism inside Turkey could jeopardize the AKP government’s efforts to achieve regional hegemony and the necessary internal economic development.

In the longer term, Ankara is already preparing for a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood becomes the next ruler in Syria (and in Egypt), as Hamas is today. This would improve Turkey’s regional status even more, but on a more Islamist basis, as competitor to the other Islamist hegemon, Iran.

In the internal arena, Erdogan has almost completely neutralized the military after the resignation of its leadership and arrests of dozens of high officers, and is working to revise the constitution and install a presidential system – steps that don’t bode well for the secular regime.

Therefore, an apology to Turkey could bring perhaps short-term calm in bilateral relations with Israel, but not real cooperation on the strategic level between the two old allies, and more probably a boost to the Islamist credentials of the AKP government and its regional standing.

AS THIS op-ed is about to be published, Israel is faced with a new “apology problem” – the deadly attack by a large Palestinian terrorist group, which penetrated the Egyptian Sinai border, fired rockets and automatic weapons and killed six Israeli civilians and two soldiers.

The attack also resulted in the deaths of five Egyptian soldiers.

It is not yet clear whether the Egyptian soldiers were killed by Israeli fire or by the Palestinian terrorists.

Oddly these soldiers did not intervene to stop the terror attack going on under their noses, and Israelis who escaped testified that soldiers or terrorists dressed as Egyptian soldiers had fired on them.

The Egyptian military government, under popular pressure fueled by the Muslim Brotherhood, accused IDF forces of shooting the Egyptian security guards dead, asked for an immediate apology and an investigation, and threatened to recall its ambassador.

It seems that it is also not happy with Israeli statements that Egypt couldn’t control the Sinai Peninsula.

The many Egyptian politicians struggling to make their way in the future elections asked for swift retaliation against Israel, and the Egyptian media as a whole did not mention the deadly results of the terrorist attack coming from their territory.

What about the five attacks on the Sinai gas pipelines, which serve not only Israel, but also Jordan and Syria, and have caused huge economic losses to Egypt; the terror attacks against Egyptian police forces in northern Sinai; and the three Egyptian battalions sent to Sinai to fight these insurgents, in coordination with the Israeli government? The Egyptian daily Al-Masry al-Youm reported Saturdat that the North Sinai security directorate has developed a plan to track down law-breakers in coordination with the security directorates of South Sinai, Suez and Ismailia; that Interior Minister Mansour al-Essawy ordered police dispatched to checkpoints attacked in the past few days; that the head of North Sinai security directorate announced a state of emergency in anticipation of further attacks by outlaws; and that crackdowns in Arish were continuing for the sixth day, with security forces seeking to root out jihadist elements.

No mention in this detailed report about the Palestinian attack.

The Israeli government has already stated that it regrets the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers. Israel is clearly interested in keeping the peace agreement with Egypt alive. It is not certain that a full apology will stop the growing Islamist anti-Israel trend there.