In two simultaneous press conferences in Rome and in Ankara on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Binaldi Yildirim officially announced the signing of a reconciliation agreement between the two countries.
“Israel has reached a strategic agreement of immense importance for Israel’s economic and security interests now and in the future,” said Netanyahu. “Israel and Turkey are the two regional powers. Our previous distance prevented both our countries from maximizing our interests in the region – all that is gone now.”
According to the terms of the agreement, Turkey will cease to allow terror organizations such as Hamas to plan attacks against Israel or to raise funds from Turkish territory. While the Hamas headquarters in the country will not be shut down, several prominent members of the terrorist organization have been expelled from Turkish territory. Additionally, Turkey will stop blocking Israeli interests in International organizations such as NATO and the UN.
Israel, on the other hand, will permit Turkey to transfer humanitarian and material aid to the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas, through Israel’s Ashdod harbor. Israel will also transfer US$21 million to a Turkish fund as restitution payment to the families of participants in the Turkish flotilla to Gaza, a 2009 incident which further strained relations between Israel and Turkey and which resulted in the deaths of ten Turkish terrorists
Since the official announcement of the reconciliation agreement, several public Israeli figures have voiced criticism against the deal, labeling it as appeasement and an admission of guilt by Israel for the Gaza flotilla incident.
“Israel will pay Turkey restitution for the Marmara? I hope the news is untrue. If so, it’s a national humiliation and an invitation for more flotillas and libels by Israel’s haters,” Gideon Sa’ar, former minister of education and a potential challenger of Netanyahu for Likud leadership, tweeted on Monday.
MK Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition and the Labor party, also weighed in on the agreement on his Facebook page. “Every Hebrew mother shall now demand that the right-wing leaders will compensate her son’s attackers,” Herzog said, ironically echoing a famed statement by David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. “The normalization of our relations with Turkey is an important political goal, but compensating those who attacked IDF soldiers is inconceivable.”
Netanyahu, however, dismissed his critics during the press conference in Rome.
“Some of the people criticizing this agreement are the same people who were saying just a week ago, ‘Why are you not closing this agreement? It’s just $21 million, it’s worth it for a partnership with the largest Muslim country.’”
“I do not run the country by tweets and momentary headlines,” added Netanyahu. He added after talks with Secretary John Kerry in the Italian capitol that the deal would have “immense implications for the Israeli economy.”
“We are not entering a honeymoon. I’m not trying to beautify this agreement or look at it through rose-colored glasses. What I am saying is that our vital interests are promoted by this agreement, that on balance it leans towards our interests,” explained Netanyahu during the press conference.
Other members of the opposition, including within Herzog’s own Zionist Union faction, such as MK Ksenia Svetlova, actually endorsed the reconciliation and even went as far as denouncing its critics.
“Those who are attacking the reconciliation with Turkey are mistaken and misleading the public,” tweeted Svetlova. “It’s a shame they are not examining the agreement to the point and are ignoring Israel’s strategic interests in order to make headlines.”
The announcement came during UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit to Israel, who immediately expressed his support.
“I welcome today’s announcement of the normalization of relations between Israel and Turkey. This is an important and hopeful signal for the stability of the region,” said Ban during a press conference with Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin.
On a trip to Gaza, however, Ban told a different story when he commented on what he perceived as the dystopian conditions of the densely populated strip of land bordering both the Israeli and Egyptian borders. Ban visited a school there and immediately bemoaned the plight of Gazans, saying that “the closure of Gaza suffocates its people, stifles its economy and impedes reconstruction efforts.”
He added that, “It’s a collective punishment for which there must be accountability.”
According to a report on The Times of Israel web site, ahead of Ban’s visit, the school in the Gaza Strip intentionally covered up a map of “historic Palestine” – which is today the modern state of Israel.
In the Turkish capitol of Ankara, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu officially inked the controversial agreement, this paving the way for its approval in parliament. The largely procedural signing was closed to the media. In a similar, parallel ceremony, Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold signed the pact in Jerusalem.
The reconciliation is as much driven by economics as politics. When the negotiations were made public in December, part of the discussions included a proposed natural gas pipeline from Israel to Turkey and the sale of natural gas, according to a CNN report.
Israel has vast untapped offshore natural gas fields that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to develop, while Turkey finds itself in need of a natural gas supplier after relations with Russia - its primary supplier - soured late last year.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Netanyahu on the phone Sunday night, where he "congratulated the Prime Minister for progress toward reconciliation with Turkey, noting the significant positive security and economic benefits for both countries."
The agreement will also include an exchange of ambassadors between the two countries; once former allies in the region. Additionally, Turkey will be granted permission to ferry over relief supplies and other goods into the Gaza strip and carry out new development projects. The deal, however, did not fully lift the blockade that Israel has imposed on the Hamas-ruled territory to prevent the Palestinian terrorist group from importing weapons.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his support in alleviating the strip’s hardship, saying it “expresses its thanks and appreciation” to Erdogan.
However, Hamas stopped short of endorsing the pact and insisted it was sticking to its policy of resisting Israel.
Despite the relief, Israel and Egypt still maintain their blockade of the isolated territory.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, said the Israeli-Turkey deal amounts to Turkish recognition of the Gaza blockade, as was reported by the AP.
“From the moment you signed it, you are making this blockade legal,” Kilicdaroglu said, addressing the authorities. “You are accepting Israel’s control over Gaza.” Relations between Israel and Turkey began to decline after Erdogan, whose party has Islamist roots, became prime minister in 2003. Relations took a sharp turn downward during Israel’s three-week war against Hamas in Gaza, from late December 2008 into January 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 relations reached their nadir in 2010 when Israeli commandos justifiably stormed a Turkish ship aiming to breech the blockade of Gaza.
Michael Zeff (TPS, AP and CNN)