Netanyahu apologizes to Turkey over Gaza flotilla raid

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday apologized to Turkey for a 2010 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that killed 10 Turks, in what US officials hailed as “a first step” toward reconciliation between the former allies.

The apology was made in a thirty minute, three-way call between President Obama, Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, conducted from a trailer on the airport tarmac in the last hour of Obama’s historic visit to Israel, the US officials said.

“Netanyahu apologized for the Mavi Mara flotilla incident and acknowledged ‘operational mistakes,'” said one senior US official, according to the White House pool report.

“Prime Minister Erdogan accepted the apology on behalf of Turkey,” the US official added.

Netanyahu also agreed in the call to set up a humanitarian fund to pay compensation to the families of those killed in the raid, making way for the restoration of full diplomatic ties between the two countries, which are both important US allies.

Erdogan, in the call, spoke “of the importance he attaches to the shared history and centuries old ties of strong friendship and cooperation between the Jewish and Turkish peoples,” a statement from the Turkish prime minister’s office said.

The U.S. nudge towards restoration of Turkish-Israeli diplomatic ties marks a significant “get” in Obama’s visit to Israel that has been otherwise short of concrete deliverables, while long on warm words and upbeat reassurances on the strength of the US-Israeli alliance and security ties.

Nine Turks and one Turkish-American citizen were killed in the May 2010 Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara flotilla, which had sought to break Israel’s blockade to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. Turkey downgraded diplomatic ties with Israel following the incident, and said it would not restore them until Israel formally apologized and paid compensation.

A past US effort to broker a resolution reportedly fell apart at the last minute after Netanyahu, under pressure from his then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, decided not to issue the agreed-upon apology language. Temporarily out of the new Israeli government while awaiting trial on alleged corruption charges, Lieberman on Friday railed against the Israeli apology, saying it endangered Israeli troops and counterterrorism operations.

Once close Israeli-Turkish ties have grown increasingly strained since Israel’s 2008 Cast Lead operation against Hamas, and more broadly as Erdogan’s ruling Islamist Justice and Peace (AKP) party has moved to bolster ties with Arab countries and peoples in the region, while also moving to subvert the country’s once dominant secular military command.

Military ties formed the backbone of the Turkish-Israeli strategic alliance at its height, said Dan Arbell, Israel’s recent Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington, who is studying the relationship as a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution Saban Center. Even the restoration of formal diplomatic ties now–as well as brisk economic trade–is not likely to return Israel and Turkey to the level of rapport they enjoyed in the past, given the reduced role the Turkish military plays under Erdogan and the AKP, he said.

“This begins a process of normalization, but I do not see it bringing the countries back to the level of relations they had between them in the 1990s,” Arbell told Al-Monitor in an interview Friday. However, an opening for rapprochement has arisen amid a growing “convergence of interests” between Ankara and Jerusalem in the region, he said, including shared concerns about spillover from the Syria conflict, and Ankara’s deepening rift with Iran.

Though Turkish-Israeli reconciliation was expected to be an agenda item during Obama’s conversations in Israel this week, Arbell said he was pleasantly surprised at the speed of the diplomatic breakthrough.

“The pace of this was surprising,” he said, adding that the parties would not have been able to overcome the diplomatic impasse wihout Washington’s mediation.

Following the call Friday, Obama traveled to Amman, Jordan for the final leg of his Middle East trip. In Jordan, he will meet with King Abdullah and then travel to the ancient city of Petra.

Avineri: Israel behavior in sharp break with past

The Israeli government’s rapid expansion of settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank in the wake of the UN vote on Palestine has alarmed Israel’s allies in the United States and Europe and represents a sharp break with Israeli foreign policy strategy in the past, argues Shlomo Avineri in Haaretz:

In responding to the UN vote on Palestinian statehood, the government’s decision to build in E-1 and in East Jerusalem is the exact opposite of the underlying principles of how Zionist and Israeli international policies have evolved over the years. When Israel wins broader and deeper international support, it can achieve its aims, and when it is isolated it fails to achieve them.

What the government is doing now is not successfully challenging the Palestinian leadership. Rather it is engaging in unnecessary quarreling with Israel’s supporters in the democratic world – the United States and the European countries. It is not enough to think you are right and to convince your supporters of that: In the cruel world of international politics, a small nation can achieve its aims only if it is able to forge alliances with the powers-that-be and to ensure their support – not out of love, but because they are convinced there is congruence between their countries’ interests, or their leaders’ considerations, and the aims of, in this case, Zionism and the State of Israel. […] Continue reading

Wieseltier: Losing hope on Israeli-Palestinian peace

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic who has long pro-Israel ties, captured the sense of despair among some in Washington at the direction of Israeli politics in the wake of Israel’s decision to build in the sensitive E1 corridor and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s uncomfortable presentation to the Saban Forum earlier this month:

I no longer believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will occur in my lifetime. I have not changed my views; I have merely lost my hopes. [...]

In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu petulantly responds to the General Assembly vote with an outrageous proposal for Jewish housing in the area east of Jerusalem known as “E1,” which would scuttle any cartographically meaningful state for the Palestinians. He allies his party with the party of Avigdor Lieberman, the fascist face of Israel, who has proposed loyalty oaths for Israeli Arabs, and then his party, I mean the Likud, demotes its moderates and promotes the odious likes of Moshe Feiglin, who refers to Arabs as Amalek and advocates their “voluntary transfer” from Israel. As these anti-democratic maniacs flourish in Netanyahu’s base, one increasingly hears in those quarters the ugly old refrain that Jordan is the Palestinian state. And there is no significant opposition to Likud [...] People assure me that all this can change if there is the political will to change it; but I do not detect the political will. So what if the two-state solution is the only solution, when nobody is desperate to solve the problem?…

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who announced upon his return to Israel from the United States this past week that he will not run in elections next month, warned that Israel's E1 building policies are further isolating Israel from the rest of the world, including its friends in the United States.

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Roundup: Israel chooses Hamas

(Photo: Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal reacts upon his arrival at the Rafah crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah.)

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US, Israel isolated as UN votes to upgrade Palestine status (Updated)


The United States and Israel appeared headed for a crushing defeat Thursday, as a vast majority of the world’s countries signaled they would vote in favor of the Palestinian bid to receive upgraded non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly. But some American diplomats and Israeli politicians said the diplomatic setback could be an opportunity for the Obama administration to rethink the politically cautious approach to the peace process it has taken over the past year.

The United States-Israeli position opposing the resolution appeared to be overwhelmingly isolated, with only around 10 countries expected to vote against the Palestinian measure, compared with some 150 expected to vote in favor.

(Update: As expected, the UN voted to upgrade Palestine’s status, with 138 nations voting in favor, 41 abstentions, and 9 votes against the measure. The no votes were: the US, Israel, Canada, Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama.)

Most strikingly, every country in Europe save for one signaled they were likely to abstain or vote in favor of the Palestinian statehood bid, including two of Israel’s closet allies. Germany, which had been expected to vote against the measure, abstained, and Italy, expected to abstain, said Thursday it would vote for the Palestinian status upgrade, along with France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland, and Austria. Britain abstained. S(o did Australia, following an uproar in the ruling party against Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s original intention to vote against the resolution.)

(Watch the vote at the UN General Assembly live here:)

The US diplomatic defeat could push the Obama administration to reconsider its recent hands-off approach to the peace process, following Israeli resistance to Obama’s first term efforts to bring the parties to the peace table, some American diplomats said. However, they acknowledged, Israel’s leadership showed few signs that it was prepared to reconsider its campaign to portray the moderate Palestinian Authority leadership as recalcitrant, even following the Gaza conflict this month, and Hamas’ growing political clout in the region.

“Look, there is no question this is a diplomatic defeat for the United States cause we tried very hard to postpone [this vote] and push it off the agenda altogether,” former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday. “And one would assume that in the wake of a diplomatic setback, you do a lessons learned, a scrub, and you go back to some of the basics. Not just were the tactics right in trying to do this, was the strategy right.”

Such a review “may lead the President to conclude that what we thought was right thing to do last year in 2011 may not be right thing in 2012,” Kurtzer continued. “The circumstances are different—especially after what happened last week in Gaza, (when) the entire attention of the world was only focused on Hamas…the PLO was not just feeling marginalized, but the built-up frustration of kind of being the good boys.”

“Abbas gets his victory today at the UN. And that is where I think there is some diplomatic opportunity for the United States to help …persuade Abbas to have a timetable favorable to the President in terms of his next moves or non moves,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), a close ally of the Obama White House, told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, adding he saw signs that the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah may next move towards a unity government.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York Wednesday in an apparent last ditch effort to try to dissuade him from the move. (The photo above suggests the tone of their meeting was rather grim.) Burns “made a personal appeal to … Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood,” the Associated Press reported. “The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.”

Meantime, several key Israeli politicians, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, urged Israel and the US to support the Palestinian measure, noting it was headed for certain victory anyway, and that the resolution’s text essentially supports the vision for a two state solution that was once the consensus position of the Israeli (and American) mainstream. Continue reading

Monday roundup: Ehud Barak calls it quits

Cairo hosts Gaza mediation talks as parties seek to avert Israeli invasion

Cairo is host to four-way talks on the Gaza crisis Saturday, as regional parties seek to move Hamas and Israel to a cease-fire and avert an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is hosting consultations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and several Palestinian leaders.

Speaking from Cairo, a senior advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised Egyptian mediation efforts, while lamenting Israeli action as further unravelling aspirations for a two state solution.

“President Abbas has consistently offered negotiations for a two-state solution, but Israel has shown no interest in these negotiations,” the senior Abbas adviser told Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti Saturday. “So this is the result. And the Palestinian people pay the price. We have warned for a while that such a confrontation could be the outcome of the Arab Spring, in the absence of a peace process.”

With regard to the role of Egypt, the Palestinian senior adviser added, “Egypt has a critical role to play for both Palestinian mediation, according to the mandate from the Arab League, and between Israel and Hamas in the present crisis.”

Hours into day four of Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel has hit some 800 targets in Gaza, while Hamas has launched some 750 rockets into Israel, including five in the direction of Tel Aviv and two towards Jerusalem, Yossi Melman reports from Tel Aviv Saturday:

Three Israeli civilians have been killed, and 40 Palestinians, both Hamas combatants and civilians, including children.

Eighty of the attempted Hamas rocket launches have failed, while 27 rockets hit urban areas and caused damage. The Iron Dome anti ballistic missile defense system has intercepted 230 Hamas rockets– about 8 out of 10 rockets it has attempted to intercept in the current confrontation.

Melman estimates that:

Israel is very reluctant to move in with a ground attack. The mobilization of reservists is mainly for psychological purposes to increase pressure on Hamas.

2. The chances of a cease fire are increased.

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Israel envoy: If Hamas stands down, we will stand down

Israel’s envoy to the United States said Friday that Israel is not looking to escalate the conflict with Hamas, but that if Hamas continues to launch rocket fire at  Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it would consider that an escalation and respond in kind.

“If they stand down, we will stand down,” Israeli ambassador Michael Oren told journalists on a call arranged by The Israel Project Friday “We are not looking to escalate.”

“The rocket fire on Tel Aviv, … and Jerusalem is an escalation,” Oren said, referring to Hamas rocket fire that landed in both cities today without causing casualties or much damage, aside from psychologically, he said. Further rocket attacks on major Israeli population centers “would be an escalation and we would respond accordingly.”

Oren declined to say if Israel would launch a ground invasion if further such rocket attacks on major Israeli cities continue. “I am just going to say that we will take all and every means to defend our citizens.”

Oren said Israel had been largely successful in targeting Hamas’ long range rocket supply, although some remain, in the three-day old Gaza operation, Pillar of Defense. The major concern now remains Hamas’ stockpile of short and medium range rockets, with a range from 7 to 50km, he estimated. A Syrian-provided 50km range rocket is one that  Oren cited as responsible for the killing of three Israeli civilians in Kiryat Malachi on Thursday.

Oren also said the Israel is encountering an increased flow of arms into Gaza  from Libya, as well as from Sudan via the lawless Egyptian Sinai. Continue reading

Gaza war intensifies — on Twitter


Given how polarized the Israel-Palestinian issue already is in the region and around the world, the Gaza conflict of 2012 is proving increasingly hard to navigate in one key virtual battleground: Twitter.

The social media space has already become a key front in the battle for information and narrative sympathies in the two day old Operation Pillar of Defense, avidly used by journalists on the ground and foreign capitals, the warring parties, and hundreds of thousands of their followers and observers around the world, often using hashtags that signify the posters’ point of view (#Gazaunderattack #LifeUnderRockets #PillarofDefense). But beyond the accurate information offered from the ground in real time–reports of air strikes in Gaza City and air raid sirens in Tel Aviv, videos posted of the Iron Dome system firing to try to intercept Hamas rocket fire, and heartbreaking photos of children killed–the Twitter forum has also produced a dizzying stream of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, confusion, reports of rockets hitting Tel Aviv that didn’t, official accounts that seemed fake and fake accounts that seemed real.

In the deluge, even experienced journalists and ordinary observers were having trouble separating fact from fiction, real information from propaganda. Continue reading

Observers Fear Conflict in Gaza Could Escalate


Israel on Thursday said that 15 Palestinians had been killed, 9 of them militants, since the start of its military operation in Gaza, Pillar of Defense, a day earlier.

Three Israeli civilians were killed on Thursday when a Hamas rocket hit their home in Kiryat Malachi, about 25 km north of Gaza.

Israeli air raid sirens went off in Tel Aviv at nightfall Thursday, but the rocket that triggered them fell into the sea, an Israeli diplomat told Al-Monitor. “Confirmed:despite sirens in Tel Aviv, rockets did not land in the area,” Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Avital Leibovich wrote on Twitter.  Israel warned, however, that a strike on Tel Aviv could trigger an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Earlier Thursday, another rocket fired from Gaza struck an open area near Rishon LeZion, a city with more than 200,000 people, Leibovich said.

The seemingly deeper reach of Hamas rockets into Israel may suggest that since the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, “the smuggling routes have flourished,” allowing Hamas to grow its stockpile of Soviet-made Katyusha rockets, Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Al-Monitor by email Thursday. “If this is the case, the stockpile could be significant.”

Palestinians held a funeral for Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari Thursday, a day after he was targeted in an Israeli air strike. Israeli media reported that Jabari, who headed Hamas’ militant wing, the Ezzedin Qassam Brigades, had been involved in back channel talks about a long-term Hamas-Israel truce.

“Hours before Hamas strongman Ahmed Jabari was assassinated, he received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the cease-fire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the factions in the Gaza Strip,” Haaretz’s Nir Hasson reported. “This, according to Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit.”

Witnesses posted video of the US-provided  Iron Dome missile defense system attempting to intercept Hamas rocket fire.

President Barack Obama consulted by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday.  The US and Egyptian leaders agreed on the importance of efforts to de-escalate the situation, the White House said in a read out of the call.

Egypt, amid street protests in Cairo against the Israel action, recalled its ambassador to Israel. Israel’s ambassador to Egypt had already returned to Israel before the military operation began, to avoid being expelled, Israeli media reported.

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency session behind closed doors Wednesday night at Egypt’s request. Arab League foreign ministers were due to meet on Saturday for consultations on the crisis.

The number of Palestinians injured in the military action to date was disputed, with Israeli sources saying 80 injured, and Palestinians saying 130. Among the Palestinian civilians killed was the 11 month old son of BBC producer Jihad Masharawi in Gaza, BBC colleagues said. “This was Jihad’s 11 month old son Omar who was killed in #Gaza yesterday when a shell came through the roof,” BBC Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar posted on Twitter. Continue reading