US President Barack Obama was on the line when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to apologize for the deaths of nine Turkish protesters aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010.
For those who don't remember, the Mavi Marmara was a Turkish ship that set sail in a bid to break Israel's lawful maritime blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza's coastline. When Israeli naval commandos boarded the ship to interdict it, passengers on deck attacked them – in breach of international maritime law. Soldiers were stabbed, bludgeoned and thrown overboard. In a misguided attempt to show the good faith of Israeli actions, the naval commandos were sent aboard the ship armed with paintball guns. As a consequence, the soldiers were hard-pressed to defend themselves. In the hand-to-hand combat that ensued, nine of the Turkish attackers were killed.
By 2010, Prime Minster Erdogan had a long track record of anti-Israel actions. Indeed, by 2010, Erdogan had effectively destroyed the strategic alliance Israel had developed with Turkey since 1949. In 2006, Erdogan was the first major international leader and NATO member to host Hamas terror chief Ismail Haniyeh. The same year he allowed Iran to use Turkish territory to transfer weaponry to Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War.
In 2008, Erdogan openly sided with Hamas against Israel in Operation Cast Lead. In 2009, he called President Shimon Peres a murderer to his face.
By the time the flotilla to Gaza was organized, Erdogan had used Turkey's position as a NATO member to effectively end the US-led alliance's cooperative relationship with Israel, by refusing to participate in military exercises with Israel.
Following the incident, rather than apologize for his allied NGO's gross violation of international maritime law and acts of wanton aggression against Israeli forces, Erdogan doubled down. He removed Turkey's ambassador from Israel. He demanded an apology as a condition for the restoration of relations. He had his court system open show trials against IDF soldiers and commanders. He stepped up his exploitation of Turkey's NATO membership to block substantive military cooperation between Israel and NATO. And he cultivated close economic and political ties with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
At the same time, Erdogan has cultivated close ties with President Barack Obama and his administration, and has spent millions of dollars on lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill to neutralize congressional opposition to his hostile behavior towards Israel and the US.
For three years Israel refused to apologize to Turkey. And then Obama came to Israel for a visit, and before he left the country, he had Netanyahu on the phone with Erdogan, apologizing for the loss of life of the Turkish protesters who stabbed and bludgeoned Israeli soldiers. Netanyahu also offered restitution to their families.
By apologizing for responding lawfully to unlawful aggression against the State of Israel and its armed forces, Israel did two things. First, Israel humiliated itself and its soldiers, and so projected an image of profound weakness. Due to this projected image, Israel has opened itself up to further demands for it to apologize for its other responses to acts of unlawful war and aggression against the state, its territory and its citizens from other aggressors. The Arab League like most of its member nations is in an official state of war with Israel. The Arabs wish to see Israel destroyed.
By forcing Israel to apologize to Turkey, Obama effectively forced Israel to acknowledge that it is in the wrong for lawful actions by its military taken in defense of international law and of Israel's national security. That is, Obama sided with the aggressor – Turkey – over the victim – Israel. And in so doing, he signaled, deliberately or inadvertently, to the rest of Israel's neighbors that the US is no longer siding with Israel in regional disputes. As a consequence, they now feel that it is reasonable for them to press their advantage and demand further Israeli apologies for daring to defend itself from their aggression.
Whether or not Obama meant to send this message, this is a direct consequence of his visit. Now Israel needs to consider its options for moving forward. For Israel's allies in Congress, it is important to take a strong position on the issue. Members of Congress and Senate would do well to pass resolutions stating their conviction that Israel, while within its own rights to apologize, operated with reasonable force and wholly in accordance with international law in its interdiction of the Mavi Marmara, which was on an illegal voyage to provide aid and comfort for an internationally recognized terrorist organization in contravention of binding UN Security Council resolution 1379 from September 2001, which prohibits the proffering of such aid. Congress should enjoin the administration to issue a declaration noting US support for Israel in its actions to defend itself from aggression in all forms, including from Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Second, Israel should scale back the level of military assistance it receives from the US. While Obama was in Israel, he pledged to expand US military assistance to Israel in the coming years. By unilaterally scaling back US assistance and developing its domestic military industries, Israel would send a strong signal to its neighbors that it is not completely dependent on the US and as a consequence, the level of US support for Israel does not determine Israel's capacity to continue to defend itself.
On a wider level, it is important for Israel to develop the means to end its dependency on the US. Under Obama, despite the support of the great majority of the public, the US has become an undependable ally to Israel, and indeed to the rest of the US's allies as well. The more quickly Israel can minimize its dependence, the better it will be for Israel, for the US and for the stability of the region. The apology to Turkey was a strategic error. To minimize its consequences, Israel must boldly assert its interests in Syria, Iran, and throughout the region.
And Turkey's actions since the apology make it clear that this was all a mistake as the Times of Israel reports:
On Tuesday, Erdogan outlined Turkey's conditions for full normalization with Israel. In addition to an apology over the Marmara episode and compensation to the victims, Turkey was also insisting that Israel lift its naval blockage of Gaza, he told lawmakers in the Turkish parliament.
The Turkish leader called the Israeli apology a "victory" for his country and its allies in the region, including Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported. Erdogan also noted that his phone conversation with Netanyahu had been recorded to make the "process safe." While the apology was initially welcomed as an important first step toward patching up relations, Erdogan on Tuesday said that an Israeli refusal to lift the blockade would be a deal-breaker.
Netanyahu, according to the Prime Minister's Office account of the phone call, did not agree to lift the blockade. Netanyahu told Erdogan "that Israel has already lifted several restrictions on the movement of civilians and goods to all of the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and added that this will continue as long as the quiet is maintained," Friday's PMO statement said. "The two leaders agreed to continue to work on improving the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories."
Israel and Turkey have entered negotiations on a compensation package to the affected families, but these talks hit a snag on Wednesday when it appeared disagreements arose over the sum of payments to the families.
What a complete disaster. It just boggles the mind that not only does Israel have to apologize but give money to the families of people who were trying to kill Israeli soldiers. WTF???