Israel and Turkey -- It's Time for Netanyahu to Apologize

FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2012, photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference with h
FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2012, photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference with his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borissov, not seen, in Jerusalem. Netanyahu is making a direct appeal to U.S. voters to elect a president willing to draw a "red line" with Iran. Netanyahu on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012, used this week's focus on unrest across the Muslim world to warn Americans watching two Sunday talk shows that time is running out to confront Tehran on its nuclear program. It was an impassioned election-season plea for a world leader who insists he doesn't want to insert himself into U.S. politics. (AP Photo/Gali Tibbon, Pool)

PM Erdogan of Turkey stated a few days ago, that a "wealthy Jew" came to see him recently with a message from PM Netanyahu urging the Turks to mend fences with Israel and put an end to the feud starting with the Mavi Marmara incident. Regrettably, nine Turks, members of a subversive Muslim organization with well-documented terror connections, were killed by Israeli naval commandos Trying to prevent their ship from breaking the Israeli naval blockade on Hamas-ruled Gaza. Apparently, the meeting did not bring about the result desired by Netanyahu, and in the absence of an Israeli apology, the relations between the two once undeclared strategic allies remain near frozen. According to Israeli press reports, the envoy was the well-respected American Jewish leader Ronald Lauder.

Lauder's closeness to Netanyahu goes back many years, and this is not the first mission that he undertakes on behalf of the Israeli leader. In 1998, Lauder visited the then Syrian dictator Hafiz Assad with an offer that real a peace-loving leader could not have refused to accept. Assad was basically offered almost 100 percent of the disputed Golan Heights, but he declined. Lauder was clearly not responsible for the failure of the mission then, nor is he responsible for what seems a failure now. PM Netanyahu is the one who has to deliver, and for reasons of internal politics, mainly pressure from the hard-liner FM Avigdor Lieberman, he is not doing what he should have done already a long time ago; send an apology to Turkey for the unfortunate results of a justified military operation which went awry.

The fact that Israel acted within its rights and international law in stopping the hostile Mavi Marmara was recognized by the Palmer Commission which investigated the incident. Their conclusions did not fully exonerated the "exaggerated use of force," but accepted the basic Israeli arguments about the very use of force. It was then that the Israeli PM should have used the old rule, that sometimes it is better to be clever than to be holier than thou, and could have apologized for the tragic results of what was recognized internationally to be a justified action. He chose not to, but it is never too late to do what is both right and strategically and diplomatically wise.

First, it has to be made clear, what will not, repeat will not, happen if an apology were to be issued. Israel and Turkey will not restore the old, strategic, mostly military-oriented relations which they had for two fruitful decades since the 1980's. This is so because Turkey's AKP Islamic government is not interested in following what its domestic adversaries, the generals of the Turkish Army did, which was to forge an actual alliance with Israel. This is part of a greater change in Turkey's foreign policy under the AKP, characterized by the disappointment from Europe and the desire to become again an important, perhaps a leading Islamic nation. In their picture of the world, Israel has no place as a close ally.

Nor will an apology soften Turkey's oft-repeated opposition to any military strike, whether American-led or unilateral against the Iranian nuclear program. So, why bother? Well, there are some very good reasons which justify such an action. First, a rapprochement with Erdogan's government will be a good boost to those in Turkey, including in his own party and government who want to maintain cordial relations with Israel. They exist and they make their position known, let alone many others in the secular wing of Turkish politics. In a situation like the one created between Israel and Turkey, even cooling off of tension, preventing a complete, irreversible rupture, is sometimes very significant. This is one of these times.

Second, an improvement with Turkey, even less than full restoration may send a positive signal to other more moderate Islamic governments and movements that it is possible to have relations with Israel without losing any legitimacy. What is good to an Islamic government in Turkey surely will be good also to other like minded moderate Islamic governments in the Middle East and outside.

Then there is the American dimension of all that. It was reported recently that General Petraeus visited Ankara and then Jerusalem as part of an attempt to find a solution to the crisis between the U.S.' two important allies in the region. PM Netanyahu has proved recently on more than one occasion that he is ready to confront the Obama administration. It may be a great opportunity to him to prove that he can also say yes to the Americans, especially when this is in line with Israel's own interest.

And just one example of why it is in Israel's interest: Syria is about to change soon, and with the inevitable downfall of Bashar Assad the new Sunni government in Damascus will be a great friend of Turkey, which is supporting more than others the Syrian rebels. In this case, Turkey could play the role that it already played in vain before, of being a mediator between Israel and the new Syria. But there is another possibility, which no one in Israel will be happy to see materializing, and this is a continuation, even intensification, of the Turkish hostility to Israel, with the likely stationing of Turkish troops in Syria, perhaps in close proximity to Israel.

Impossible? Fantasy land? Maybe, but maybe not. It is, after all, the unpredictable Middle East that we're dealing with.

For this and all the other reasons cited, PM Netanyahu should make a bold move and apologize to Turkey. It will not signal weakness on the part of Israel. In this case the opposite will be true.