Sanberk: Israel's apology a turning point, both sides should appoint ambassadors without delay

As Israel has formally apologized to Turkey for the killing of nine Turkish citizens onboard the ship Mavi Marmara in 2010 -- following almost three years of political tension and back-channel diplomacy -- this week's guest for Monday Talk views the apology as a turning point both for bilateral relations and the Palestinians, saying that both sides should appoint their ambassadors as soon as possible.

“The gain here is that they will now have normal diplomatic relations and they can review their disagreements through normal diplomatic channels. Second, Israel promises to work with Turkey for the ease of the rest of the blockade on people of Gaza,” said Ozdem Sanberk, who served as Turkey's representative on a United Nations inquiry panel looking into the May 31, 2010 flotilla incident.

Sanberk also says that Turkey should appoint its ambassador to Israel -- and Israel to Turkey -- without delay, and they should not be hastily withdrawn again when new divergences emerge.

“Nothing is under control in the Middle East at the moment. But Turkey and Israel have the opportunity to develop normal relations with each other now, and it will be in the interest of all parties in the region, including the Palestinians. We should not miss that,” he said, adding that it was “abnormal” for these two stable countries not to have dialogue, especially when there is a humanitarian tragedy ongoing in Syria.

With a push from US President Barack Obama during his visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placed a phone call to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and apologized for the killing of people who were part of an aid flotilla which was raided by Israeli commandos trying to stop it from reaching Gaza. Turkey had been long demanding a formal apology, reparations for the families of those killed and the lifting of the siege of Gaza.

Answering our questions on the topic, Sanberk said that the amount of compensation, which has been widely discussed in the media recently, has never been an issue.

First of all, what would you say about Israel's apology? Why did it come almost three years after the incident?

This is a good question, and I ask the same question to myself. If we had this apology following the tragic event of May 31, 2010, we would not have lost three years. …The apology did not come because the Israeli government was not ready. Some hardliners in the Israeli government, including then Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, objected to Israel's apology.

There has been second-track diplomacy between Turkey and Israel since [the incident]; indeed, representatives from both sides had agreed on a text for the details of the apology and its aftermath. First of all, when was that agreement was reached?

The agreement was reached on June 18-19, 2011; the articles of it were on text but it was only an unofficial, ad referendum agreement between the representatives from both sides on a bilateral level.

What happened to that agreement?

It was not signed by the governments. Now, we have something different. The agreement has been reached between the two prime ministers. We don't know yet the full details of the talk between Prime Ministers Erdogan and Netanyahu. The most important thing for the Israeli side at the time was that Israel would apologize but the raid was not intentional; the apology should not mean that Israel accepts criminal responsibility in the event. We stressed at the time that Israel should apologizes first and accept to pay compensation to families of the victims; then diplomatic relations should be re-established. Then, Turkey and Israel could resolve their differences within the norms of normal bilateral relations. As I said, we should have done this three years ago, but we are doing it now. Relations might not ever be the same again since those three years have passed. But at last, common sense has prevailed.

Since Israel was insistent not to apologize, have there been times of no contact between the two countries -- in other words, has the second-track diplomacy ceased at some points?

The second-track diplomacy never ended. There was obviously no transparency about it and all talks were held behind closed doors. This shows us that diplomacy behind closed doors is still important. That's how second-track diplomacy should work to be successful.

What's in the news nowadays is that there is a huge gap between what Turkey asks for compensation of the victims and what Israel is willing to pay…

In the initial agreement that I mentioned, we had only blank space in the text for the amount of compensation. This is up to the two countries to talk and decide. Some of the families of the victims have already indicated that they are going to donate all of that money to the Palestinian people of Gaza. The amount was never an issue.

Media reports indicate that Turkey asks for $1 million and Israel is willing to pay $100,000 for each victim. I don't think these are true. The bereaved families are not after money.

‘Netanyahu promises to ease restrictions on Gazans'

What shall we expect in the days ahead? Do you expect any problem areas?

We should realize that Israel's apology indicates a turning point in Turkey-Israel relations. Although it will never put an end to the pain which occurred after the May 31 incident, it is a positive step forward. Both Turkey and Israel should look ahead from now on. One important detail in Netanyahu's words on the phone with the Turkish Prime Minister was that Israel will continue to ease restrictions on the movement of civilian goods into Gaza and Israel will work with Turkey in that regard. Therefore, the agreement between Turkey and Israel carries a lot of importance for the Palestinian cause.

Observers have been saying that Turkey and Israel have almost reached a point of no return in their relations since they were not able to agree for a long time, and they have almost no common agenda. Now that there is a verbal agreement at the highest level, what mutual points of interests do they have to resuscitate their relations?

First of all, we have to see the fact that both countries moved away from each other in those three years. Their relations will never be like on the day of May 29, 2010. We should not expect a rose garden. However, we have to note that they already had serious areas of divergences prior to the May 2010 incident as well. The gain here is that they will now have normal diplomatic relations and they can review their disagreements through normal diplomatic channels. Second, Israel promises to work with Turkey for the ease of the rest of the blockade on the people of Gaza. Turkey, as the most vocal voice in regard to the Palestinian suffering, has gained a diplomatic success. In regard to Turkey and Israel in the region, they are both stable countries in this volatile area. They are both neighboring Syria, where a humanitarian tragedy is ongoing. It was abnormal for these two stable countries not to have dialogue. Now they have a chance to do that. This is a positive development for the Palestinians as well.

The issue of energy?

It is too early to talk about this. We don't even have the ambassadors sent out.

‘Where there is occupation, there is resistance'

When shall we expect them to be appointed?

This is up to the Turkish government, but my suggestion is this: Turkey should appoint its ambassador to Israel -- and Israel to Turkey -- as soon as possible, without much fuss. And they should not be withdrawn again hastily when there is a new divergence between them. We should definitely expect conflict again, we will not be in a rose garden; but ambassadors' duties are even more important when there is conflict. That's what the ambassadors are for. Nothing is under control in the Middle East at the moment. But Turkey and Israel have the opportunity to develop normal relations with each other now, and it will be in the interest of all parties in the region, including the Palestinians. We should not miss that. If there are no relations, neither side has a chance to contribute to the peace and stability in the region.

Here I need to give a note of warning: In real life, Israel's effective control of Gaza from air and sea still continues unabated. Despite the disengagement, Israel maintains its full control over the Gaza Strip. Israel controls the entry and exit of people and goods between Gaza and abroad, the monetary regime, tax collection and customs arrangements, post and telecommunications, including birth certificates. It is obvious that the question is not only about the basic needs. It is about the fundamental rights and dignity of the people of Gaza. Where there is occupation, there is resistance. This will surely continue to be a problem between Turkey and Israel. Prime Minister Erdogan's expected visit to Gaza is important in that regard. We have to see how this will be perceived by the Palestinian people.

Would you talk about the gains of Israel from normal relations with Turkey?

It is of course up to the Israelis themselves to talk about this. But there are first of all historical ties. There are also Israelis who fiercely criticize the Israeli government for its policies over Palestinians. We have to realize that Turkish diplomacy also has its limits in the region. Turkey does not yet have the global position to act as a diplomatic arbiter for the region. In some contexts it may eventually be able to do so, but only after further consolidation of its democracy and its economic strength. Actually, almost no country has this power in the Middle East except the United States. And the United States has foreign policy priorities in Southeast Asia and China. In addition, the United States has decided not to use military power in the Middle East -- except perhaps for the security of Israel. However, the United States is still the only game changer in the region. If the priority area of the US diplomacy is Southeast Asia, then it needs local partners from the regional actors -- such as Turkey and Israel -- in the Middle East, where hot conflicts are ongoing.

‘Turkish-Israeli dialogue will fasten Assad's departure'

Now Syria… How do you think the Turkish-Israeli partnership will influence the events in Syria?

Prime Minister Erdogan said that Turkish-Israeli dialogue will fasten Assad's departure. I tend to agree with this view, but I am more cautious because in civil wars we can never know how events will unfold. There are important factors and actors -- like Russia and Iran -- which have influence on Syria, Iraq and beyond.

Do you think Israel's apology to Turkey was a surprising development for Iran?

Iran has had lots of diplomatic dexterity and experience throughout history. I'm sure they have evaluated the situation very pragmatically. Iran seeks power in the region and now faces a more balanced picture. This is not to say that Turkey will now take a stance against Iran together with Israel and the United States. No, Turkey has the ability to take autonomous approaches in regard to its relation with each country. Turkey will continue to keep its channels open in relation to Iran, which it has a diverse relationship with. Turkey has a chance to be an important factor of stability, if not a game changer, in that regard. Israel's apology gives Turkey more power for diplomacy.

At the most recent Arab League Summit, the Syrian opposition was recognized as the only representative of the country, and the League lent its support to giving military aid to the Syrian opposition rebels. Your comment?

The Arab League's decision is very important. But let's note that though most countries in and out of the region are highly armed, they do not send their troops across borders, including Russia, Iran and the United States. The Libyan crisis was dealt with by bringing NATO into the Arab world, but it was a special and possibly unique case. NATO is not involved in the Syrian war with the result that it has been inconclusive so far. The stakes in Syria are diplomatic stakes, not military ones.

‘We have to walk there and lay pavement to make peace work'

How would you relate Turkey's peace process in regard to reconciliation with Kurds of Turkey to the developments regarding Turkey's relations with Israel?

There is a positive relationship. When you add a dynamic grain to a static system, that system gains positive momentum and expands around positively. Turkey's peace process, despite all the odds, is ongoing so far with positive developments domestically. Then, the Israeli apology is adding another positive grain to the whole meal. That's why Turkey and Israel have to send ambassadors to each other's countries without too much delay, and preferably as early as possible without losing the momentum. We cannot afford to push the breaks here. Roads to peace are often closed. In order to open those roads, we have to walk there. This was very well expressed by Spanish poet Antonio Machado, who lived through the Spanish civil war. He said in Spanish: “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” In English, this means: “Traveller, there is no roadway, for it is made as you journey." There isn't a pre-laid path to peace, it is made as you journey. This is related to our topic and very inspirational. Our peace process has no road. In order to open a road to peace, we have to walk there and lay the pavement. If we focus on issues of implementation, however important they may be, in regard to the Kurdish question or Israel, we will miss the trick. On the other hand, at the domestic level our priority must be the achievement of a new constitution.

So you're saying that Turkey's priority should be making its new constitution, and this has priority even before solving its Kurdish issue?

Yes, the constitution is the key. If Turkey can make a new constitution which takes human dignity at the center -- with full freedom of expression, environmental friendliness and gender equality -- then it can solve the Kurdish problem, end the terror and achieve sustainable growth, and become a real game changer in the region. Economic power without supremacy of law is not sustainable.


Ozdem Sanberk

He is a career diplomat who has served in Madrid, Amman, Bonn and Paris. An advisor to Prime Minister Turgut Ozal in 1985-1987, he was the Turkish ambassador and permanent representative to the European Union in Brussels from 1987 until 1991. He was the permanent secretary-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara from 1991 until 1995. Sanberk served as Turkish ambassador to the UK from 1995 to 2000. Following his retirement in 2000, he was the director of the Istanbul-based Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) until September 2003. He is currently the head of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (ISRO/ USAK).