Turkey may add Israel sanctions
Former allies sparring over flotilla deaths
ANKARA, Turkey - Turkey’s prime minister said yesterday that his nation’s navy will step up its surveillance of the eastern Mediterranean Sea - a move that could potentially lead to confrontation with Israel - and warned of more sanctions against Israel as relations between the former allies deteriorated further.
Turkey has already suspended its vast military ties with Israel, said it is expelling top Israeli diplomats, and pledged to lobby other nations in support of the Palestinians’ statehood bid after Israel refused to apologize for last year’s raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that killed nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists.
The sudden measures mark a stunning reversal for the two nations, who were once each other’s top military trading partners and used to regularly train together on each other’s soil.
Israel has expressed regret for the loss of lives aboard the flotilla and said yesterday that it was time for the two countries to restore their former close ties.
“Israel and Turkey are the two strongest nations in the Middle East and in many respects, the most important,’’ Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest threats.
“We have disputes, and even in the case of disputes, it’s very important that the two sides use their brains and not act from the gut. It would be best for all involved and in the interest of regional stability to patch things up,’’ Barak said.
A United Nations report released last week said Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza was a “legitimate security measure,’’ but also called the raid on the flotilla that tried to break the blockade “excessive and unreasonable.’’ It also said Turkey and the flotilla organizers contributed to the bloodshed.
Israel has accepted the UN report, albeit with reservations. Turkey has rejected it.
Erdogan has said the “report does not mean anything for us,’’ and announced the suspension of some trade and military relations. Turkey has not imposed a trade embargo on Israel but suspended ongoing defense projects and purchases from Israeli defense firms.
The breakdown in relations has hurt a key alliance for Israel, which has considered Turkey its strongest ally in the Muslim world.
It is unclear what impact the Turkish decision to scale back economic ties will be. Israeli defense officials said there have not been any new agreements since 2008, just before relations began to deteriorate.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a sensitive diplomatic matter, said Israel was committed to the existing deals and would continue to provide military gear to Turkey despite the latest crisis.
At its height in the late 1990s, Israel exported to Turkey billions of dollars worth of tanks, unmanned aircraft, and military technology. Turkey is also a top business partner and tourist destination for Israelis.
Israeli officials noted paradoxically that despite the tension in recent years, 2011 has been a record year thus far in overall trade.
Relations began deteriorating as a result of Israel’s campaign against Gaza rocket launchers in early 2009, in which about 1,400 Palestinians were killed, and worsened dramatically after the May 2010 raid on the Mavi Marmara vessel.