Josef Federman and Suzan Fraser
JERUSALEM: Israel and Turkey struck a broad reconciliation pact Monday that will restore full diplomatic relations after six years of animosity between the once-close Mideast powers.
The deal gave a welcome boost to the leaders of the two countries, both of whom have seen their international standing deteriorate in recent months. But differences remain over a root cause of the rift — Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip — and there’s no indication the two countries will restore their once strong security ties.
Turkey also took steps toward improving strained ties with Moscow on Monday by expressing regret for bringing down a Russian plane near the border with Syria last year.
The agreement with Israel will include an exchange of ambassadors and Israeli compensation for the deaths of 10 Turkish citizens from a 2010 Israeli naval raid on an activist flotilla that aimed to breach the Gaza blockade. Turkey will also be allowed to bring relief supplies into Gaza and carry out new development projects there.
“The world is convulsing. The Middle East is convulsing. My policy is to create centers of stability in this unstable and stormy region,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as he announced details of the deal during an official visit to Rome.
“With this deal, the process of returning ties to normal has begun,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in Ankara.
Relations between Israel and Turkey began to decline soon after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party has Islamist roots, became prime minister in 2003.
Since then, Erdogan, who became president two years ago, has sought closer ties with Muslim nations in the region while trying to distance his country from Israel. Erdogan’s close ties with Hamas, an Islamic Palestinian militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, further strained ties.
Relations took a sharp turn downward during Israel’s three-week war against Hamas in Gaza in 2008 and 2009, when Erdogan criticized Israel over the high Palestinian death toll.
Israel said the operation was needed to halt Hamas rocket fire and that the heavy civilian death toll resulted from Hamas using residential areas for cover.
The animosity peaked on May 31, 2010, when Israeli commandos stormed a ship called the Mavi Marmara while stopping the international flotilla.
Nine Turks, including a dual American citizen, were killed and dozens of activists were wounded, one of whom died several years later. On the Israeli side, seven soldiers were wounded by activists who attacked them with clubs, knives and pipes.
Following the incident, Turkey withdrew its ambassador to Israel and scaled back military and economic ties. Relations were never broken completely.
Israel later apologized for the deaths of the activists and agreed to compensate the victims’ families under a U.S.-brokered arrangement in 2013. But the deal was never implemented as Turkey demanded the lifting of the Gaza blockade.
Israel says the blockade, imposed after Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, is needed to prevent the group from importing weapons. Critics say the measure, which has hit Gaza’s economy hard, is collective punishment.
Under Monday’s deal, Israel will pay $20 million in compensation for families of victims of the naval raid. In return, Turkey agreed to halt any legal claims connected to the raid. The countries are expected to exchange ambassadors within weeks.
In addition, Israel agreed to allow Turkey to deliver aid to Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod, where everything will undergo security checks before entering the territory.
Turkey said the first ship, carrying more than 10,000 tons of aid — including food and clothing — will depart for Israel on Friday. He said Turkey would immediately start working on electricity, water and housing projects in Gaza, and complete a 200-bed hospital there.
“Therefore the embargo there is being lifted under Turkey’s leadership,” he said.
Netanyahu welcomed efforts to help solve Gaza’s water and power shortages, but said the blockade remains a “top security interest.” Yildirim did not comment on Israeli claims that Turkey agreed to prevent Hamas from fundraising or military activities on its soil.
Erdogan said Turkey had consulted with the two main Palestinian factions during the negotiations. He spoke to the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday and met with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal on Friday.
“Both were favorable (to the agreement) and so we continued on our way,” Erdogan said at dinner at his palace to break the daily Ramadan fast.
Erdogan said despite the agreement, Turkey would continue to address the grievances of the Palestinians and object to “Israel’s unlawful practices in Jerusalem and in Al-Aqsa,” referring to a contentious holy site revered by Jews and Muslims.
The Turkish leader also thanked U.S. President Barack Obama for his contributions to the reconciliation deal.
Hamas had no immediate reaction to the deal. The Turkish Islamic charity group IHH, which helped organize the 2010 flotilla, criticized it, saying it amounted to acceptance of the Israeli blockade.
While each side was forced to compromise, the deal brought some welcome gains to the Israeli and Turkish leaders.
After two years of stalemate in Mideast peace efforts, the international community has largely blamed Netanyahu for the impasse with the Palestinians, while critics at home accuse him of isolating the country. Netanyahu has also sought regional allies to offset the influence of Iran and Sunni Islamic extremists in the region.
Netanyahu said Turkey would provide an important market for Israeli natural gas and a gateway for exports to Europe.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met Netanyahu earlier Monday in Rome, called the Turkey deal a “positive step.”
For Turkey, the deal helps alleviate a growing sense of isolation.
Ties with Egypt were strained over Turkey’s strong condemnation of the military ouster of an Islamist president in 2013. Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane near the Syrian border in November has raised tensions with Moscow. In the Syrian conflict, Turkey has been accused of supporting jihadist groups fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On Monday, Erdogan expressed regret for the downing of the plane in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting a key Russian demand for improving ties. Russian sanctions imposed over the incident have dealt a blow to Turkey’s economy.
“Erdogan hopes that this deal (with Israel) will have a significant effect on his global reputation and this will play positively at home,” said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, said the agreement will have little immediate impact on security ties and that it will likely take time for relations to warm up to anywhere close to what they were in the pre-Erdogan years.
“The potential is huge but we need time to build this trust,” he said.
The deal also came under criticism in Israel from the families of servicemen killed fighting Hamas in a 2014 Gaza war. Hamas is believed to be holding the remains of two dead soldiers, and possibly two Israeli civilians who are believed to have slipped into Gaza.
In Jerusalem, families of the soldiers and missing Israelis, joined by about 50 supporters, gathered outside Netanyahu’s official residence to protest the deal. The families say Netanyahu promised them that a return of the soldiers’ remains would be part of any deal with Turkey.