Jerusalem - A ruling issued by an Istanbul court earlier this week seemed at first like another serious setback for the long-delayed effort to mend ties between Turkey and Israel.
Ankara downgraded relations with its onetime ally after Israeli commandos launched a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in 2010, killing 10 people, most of them Turkish citizens. The two countries have been negotiating a reconciliation deal for months and reports last week said it was nearly complete.
On Monday, though, a criminal court in Istanbul ordered the arrest of four retired Israeli military officers, including General Gabi Ashkenazi, the former chief of staff, and General Amos Yadlin, the former head of military intelligence. All four held senior posts at the time of the raid; prosecutors are seeking multiple life sentences.
The ruling prompted an angry reaction from Israeli officials, who described it with terms like "ridiculous provocation", and warned that it could jeopardise the talks.
Yet the ruling will only become significant if Interpol agrees to issue arrest warrants for the four officers, which it may well decline to do. Domestic politics may continue to delay an agreement, but analysts and diplomats say both sides have strong economic and political incentives to reconcile.
We should separate the process of political normalisation from the courts. The Turkish government is serious about this agreement.
"We should separate the process of political normalisation from the courts," said Oguz Celikkol, who was Turkey’s ambassador to Israel at the time of the raid. "The Turkish government is serious about this agreement. That’s why they’ve spent the past three years discussing it."
VIDEO: Fallout in the Mediterranean
Ankara was Israel’s closest majority-Muslim ally throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s. The two had extensive military relations, with Israeli pilots training in Turkish airspace and companies signing billions of dollars in arms deals.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, today seen by many Israelis as implacably hostile, made a friendly visit to Jerusalem in 2005 with a large delegation of businessmen. He offered to serve as a negotiator with the Palestinians, and laid a wreath at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial.
The first rupture came in January 2009, amid the three-week Israeli war in Gaza. Erdogan was a sharp critic of the offensive, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Days after the war ended, the prime minister stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos after an angry exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
A year of symbolic slights followed, including the infamous "low chair" incident. Celikkol was summoned to a meeting with Israel’s then-deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, who wanted to complain about a Turkish television programme’s negative portrayal of Israeli soldiers. He seated Celikkol in a low chair, behind a table without a Turkish flag, and told a news crew to film the breaches of protocol.
But it was the flotilla raid in May 2010 that provided the final break. Nine people were killed during the attack; eight were Turkish citizens, and the ninth an American of Turkish descent. (A tenth victim, Ugur Suleyman Soylemez, died earlier this month after being in a coma for four years.) Turkey immediately recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and later downgraded diplomatic relations and suspended military cooperation with Israel.
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Ankara at first had three basic requirements for restoring ties: Israel must apologise for the attack, pay compensation to the victims, and lift its blockade of Gaza.
| Israeli commandos launched a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in 2010, killing nine people [Reuters]
The apology came last year, arranged by US President Barack Obama while on an official visit to Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Erdogan for the first time since 2009 and "expressed an apology to the Turkish people for any error that may have led to the loss of life", according to a readout of their call.
In an interview last month with PBS’ Charlie Rose, Erdogan confirmed that the two sides had also reached a deal on compensation. "With the completion of this stage, we may move towards a process of normalisation," he said. "I think it is a matter of weeks."
Erdogan also seemed to drop his demand that Israel lift the blockade, saying only that it should allow Turkey to "send humanitarian aid" to the besieged strip.
So the deal was done - until domestic politics interfered. Israeli and Turkish sources disagree on who delayed the signing: Some say it was Erdogan, fearful it would hurt his party in municipal elections held in March, while others say Netanyahu is worried about his own standing at home.
"Nobody’s sure. Before the municipal elections, Erdogan thought it would politically not work in his favour," said Gabi Levi, the last Israeli ambassador to Turkey before relations were downgraded. "Now it might be Netanyahu holding it up."
[Reconciliation is] a priority for the Obama administration, and Israel is terrified of the idea that they're going to be isolated from the West. And there are benefits for Erdogan as well, because it's obvious that the last few years have been difficult for Turkey from an international standpoint.
Monday’s ruling seems to be another obstacle; Israel will not pay millions of dollars in compensation if its officers could wind up in the dock a few months later. Toby Cadman, a lawyer working with IHH, the Turkish charity that organised the flotilla, said the court has asked Interpol to issue "red notices" for the four, akin to international arrest warrants.
"There is an extradition treaty between Turkey and Israel, and these are crimes punishable under international law, so Israel would have to extradite, or put these people on trial within Israel," Cadman said. "They can't ignore this."
Erdogan said on Tuesday that he cannot influence the court. But that is not entirely true: As part of any deal, Israel wants the Turkish parliament to pass a law that would bar prosecutions connected with the raid, a provision to which officials say Erdogan is amenable.
"I would take at face value what Erdogan said, that this is a separate decision by a separate institution," Levi said. "He will make sure that Israelis are not subject to any court proceedings."
Amid all of this, the two countries are discussing plans to build a $2.2bn undersea pipeline connecting Turkey to Israel’s Leviathan gas field in the Mediterranean. The pipeline would be highly lucrative for both countries, giving Israel access to the European market.
A reconciliation deal would also help reduce the growing diplomatic isolation faced by both countries. Erdogan has fallen out of favour because of his harsh crackdown on dissent over the past year, while Netanyahu’s right-wing government is alienating a growing number of allies.
"It's a priority for the Obama administration, and Israel is terrified of the idea that they're going to be isolated from the West," said Michael Koplow, the programme director at the Israel Institute and a close watcher of Israeli-Turkish relations. "And there are benefits for Erdogan as well, because it's obvious that the last few years have been difficult for Turkey from an international standpoint."
The court case will continue, as will a separate International Criminal Court probe of the flotilla raid. But diplomats on both sides say they are unlikely to derail the reconciliation talks.
"Turkish and Israeli relations have fluctuated. There are two other incidents where ambassadors were recalled," Celikkol said. "And then the Turkish ambassador returned. So this isn't the first time we are passing through this situation."