Turkey has announced it is expelling Israel’s top diplomats in Ankara and suspending military ties with the Jewish state, as relations between the former allies reach new lows.
Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign minister, told a hastily convened press conference in Ankara that all officials above the rank of second secretary would have to leave Israel’s embassy, with Turkey taking parallel steps at its embassy in Tel Aviv. Military agreements between the two countries – encompassing issues such as training and defence co-operation – would be frozen.
The move is a blow to US efforts to heal the breach between its two regional allies in the wake of the controversy over Israel’s 2010 storming of the Mavi Marmara, a Turkey-based ship that sought to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
“It is time Israel pays a price,” Mr Davutoglu said.
Diplomats in Jerusalem downplayed the move, emphasising that Israel’s ambassador to Turkey had already concluded his term. As part of Ankara’s initial response to the Mavi Marmara case, the Turkish ambassador-designate to Israel has also never taken up his post and military relations were already essentially frozen.
But Turkish officials argued Friday’s decision – which effectively limits contacts to junior levels – went far beyond symbolism.
“We have been very patient,” said one Ankara official. “But we had already had promised our people that if the Israelis did not deliver, we had to deliver to our public opinion.”
In a statement later on Friday Turkey said it would seek to take the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and would look for support in the UN General Assembly.
Despite repeated Turkish demands, Israel has declined to apologise and pay compensation for the raid, in which nine activists died, arguing that it had a right to search and capture the Mavi Marmara, even though the vessel was on the high seas.
Diplomats said that at a meeting this week, Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, pushed Mr Davutoglu for more time, but that Ankara’s hand was forced by a leak to the New York Times of a long-awaited United Nations report into the raid.
Turkey’s move comes at a time when it has bolstered its ties with its Nato allies, announcing this week it would host a radar base for a Nato-wide missile defence system – a decision long sought by the US.
Washington also sought to persuade the Israeli government to take steps to repair the rift with Turkey.
But prominent right-wing government figures such as Avigdor Lieberman, foreign minister, rejected any apology for the raid even as the centrist defence minister, Ehud Barak, advocated expressing regret “for problems that occurred during the Marmara operation” to bridge the rift.
The UN panel report, chaired by Geoffrey Palmer, a former New Zealand prime minister, was originally intended to narrow the differences between Turkey and Israel.
The report urged Israel to express regret and pay compensation, labelling the manner of the boarding “excessive and unreasonable” and the loss of life, including some people shot at close quarters, “unacceptable”.
But, contrary to Turkey’s arguments that the naval blockade was illegal, the panel said it was lawful in view of missile attacks on Israel from Gaza. It added that on boarding the Mavi Marmara, the Israeli soldiers “faced significant, organised and violent resistance …requiring them to use force for their own protection”.
Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist and former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, said Israel had made a mistake by not expressing regret and paying compensation.
“Relations with Turkey are important for Israel and the report was a way out of the crisis,” he said. “However, Turkey deeply exacerbated the conflict today with a very aggressive response that is contrary to the [Turkish] foreign minister’s philosophy of zero conflicts with the neighbours in the region.”
Diplomats in Jerusalem added that Israeli soldiers had no choice to defend themselves after being attacked by dozens of activists armed with clubs, knives and steel pipes.
The report urges the two countries, which previously had a close relationship, particularly on the military level, to resume full diplomatic relations. But in a sign of the continuing tensions, both the Turkish and Israeli members of the four-man UN panel issued dissents with some of the report’s findings.
Israel’s diplomats at present are focused on challenges at the UN, principally a Palestinian bid to win recognition as an independent state. Meanwhile, Turkey has taken a much more active role in the Middle East than for decades, moving beyond its traditional ties with Israel.
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