Turkey suspended military relations with Israel and will downgrade diplomatic ties barring an apology for the killing of Turkish activists on a flotilla to Gaza last year, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
Diplomatic relations between the two countries will be cut to second-secretary level and military accords are on hold, Davutoglu said at a news conference in Ankara today. All higher-ranking officials, including the ambassador, will return to their countries by Sept. 7, he said.
Turkey, a NATO member, is severing ties with its once closest ally in the Middle East before a United Nations report on Israel’s raid in May last year on vessels attempting to breach the blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The UN said Israel’s naval blockage is legal and that the country is entitled to enforce it while adding that its effort to stop the flotilla was “excessive and unreasonable,” according to the 105-page report obtained by the New York Times and posted on its website.
“Israel has wasted all the chances it was given,” Davutoglu said. “Now, the Israeli government needs to face and pay for its illegal measures, and the first cost for seeing itself above international laws and disregarding the human conscience is Turkey’s friendship.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his country’s response to the flotilla was justified. The UN report said “an appropriate statement of regret should be made by Israel,” whereas Turkey demands an outright apology.
Israel won’t apologize for the deaths as its soldiers acted in self defense, said a government official in Jerusalem who declined to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Israel regrets the loss of life and hopes to find a way to resolve clashes with Turkey, he said.
Gaby Levy, Israel’s ambassador in Ankara, said he will quit his post mid-September for personal reasons and because it’s becoming increasingly difficult for him to work in Turkey, state-run Anatolia news agency reported Aug. on 23.
Turkey withdrew its ambassador after the raid and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded an apology, compensation and lifting of the naval blockade before relations are fully restored. The attack prompted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to call the blockade “unsustainable and wrong.”
Less than a month after the confrontation, Israel loosened its land blockade with Gaza with the aim of allowing more food in and keeping weapons and items with a possible military use out. Egypt opened its border crossing with the Gaza Strip on May 28, easing its own four-year blockade of the territory.
“This is a severe situation, bad for Israel and Turkey, especially if it is now spilling over into economic and trade ties, which had remained stable during this whole period of diplomatic tension,” said Jonathan Spyer, political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya outside Tel Aviv.
“While Turkey could have received the UN report more positively given that it hardly lets Israel off the hook, it’s clear now that Erdogan wants to maintain a certain level of tension in the relationship, as it suits his strategy to raise Turkey’s profile in the region,” he said.
Political tensions haven’t significantly affected economic ties. Turkey remains Israel’s biggest commercial partner in the region. Shipments from Turkey to Israel from January to June increased to $695 million from $600 million a year earlier and Israeli exports to Turkey rose to $662 million from $420 million.
Among companies that did business with Turkey were Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. and Elbit Ltd., which traded arms. The day after the May 31 raid, the shekel weakened to an almost 10-month low while the benchmark TA-25 stock index posted a two-day drop of 2.6 percent amid concern that criticism over the raid would spur investors to sell.
Israel has said that in the confrontation, which followed numerous warnings for the ships to change course, its soldiers were attacked with knives and clubs after boarding the Mavi Marmara, one of six vessels in the flotilla, and seven were wounded, including by gunfire after volunteers aboard the ship managed to grab Israeli firearms.
The report cited forensic evidence indicating that the dead were shot “multiple times,” including in the back or at close range. The findings also said Israeli soldiers faced “significant, organized and violent resistance” from a group of passengers on the vessel.
‘Breakdown in Relations’
The release of the report, which has been held back, may do little to heal relations between nations. Turkey’s position is that both the Israeli maritime blockade of Gaza and the attack on the aid flotilla were unlawful.
Davutoglu called some findings in the report “political.” Netanyahu had agreed with Turkey on the means to normalize relations after four rounds of meetings between officials of the two countries, Davutoglu said. The Israeli Cabinet then blocked the agreement, he said.
“This kind of breakdown in relations is very serious at a very sensitive moment,” Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at Chatham House and a Middle East and Israel expert at Regent’s College in London. “It is an example how two governments climbed up a high tree and have no idea how to climb down.”