Middle East

Mavi Marmara: US extracts last-minute Israeli apology

People holding Turkish and Palestinian flags cheer as the Mavi Marmara ship arrives back in Istanbul. (archive photo dated 26 December 2010)
Image caption The apology may not reflect a change in public opinion

It lacked the glamour and polish you associate with major diplomatic developments.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his phone call of apology to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan from a trailer on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv.

Air Force One stood idling while the call was placed. Barack Obama sat in the trailer with Mr Netanyahu and is understood to have intervened in the call at one point.

There is a danger that the last-minute nature of the deal - the president was about to take off for Jordan - might suggest that considerable American influence had to be brought to bear before the Israeli prime minister agreed to make the apology.

But make it he did, and long period of crisis in relations between Israel and Turkey looks as though it may now be coming to an end.

The Middle East has been growing increasingly fluid and unstable in recent years, and Syria's descent into civil war is making things worse.

In these turbulent times the United States cannot really afford to have two of its key strategic allies at loggerheads.

And some kind of deal to kiss and make up is in the interests of both the Turks and the Israelis.

Israel is short of friends in and around the Middle East - and Turkey was for many years its closest ally in the Muslim world. There were strong military and trade links - plenty of ways in which the relationship was good for both partners.

And while Mr Erdogan's Islamist instincts have prompted him to seek a role as a protector of Palestinian interests and a regional power-broker over the course of the Arab Spring, the diplomatic ties with Israel made Turkey unique; a diplomatic player with money and muscle who could talk to just about anyone.

Window of opportunity

On a more pragmatic note, the Americans have picked their moment rather well.

In Mr Netanyahu's last government his foreign minister (and electoral partner) Avigdor Lieberman was a firm opponent of issuing an apology.

He argued that the Israeli commandos who stormed the Mavi Marmara and killed nine Turkish activists had met violent opposition and were entitled to use force.

But Mr Lieberman, although he was returned to parliament after the recent elections here, is not currently serving as foreign minister because Israeli law says he cannot be in the cabinet while fighting corruption charges.

If he wins his court case he might be back, but for now a window of opportunity presented itself.

The underlying political realities in both countries will remain pretty much as they were.

Many Turks believe the activists on the Mavi Marmara back in 2010 were doing the right thing when they set sail to try to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza.

And many Israelis certainly still think that their forces were entitled to open fire in the operation to seize the ship.

But public opinion does not always - perhaps does not often - feed through directly into diplomacy.

And all this is not to say of course that all will immediately be sweetness and light.

Turks have not forgotten the moment earlier in 2010 when an Israeli official set out to humiliate the Turkish ambassador by making him sit uncomfortably on a low sofa during a formal diplomatic meeting.

It was a moment so absurd that it recalled a scene in the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator - but it also hinted that not all was well even before the Mavi Marmara incident.

Mr Erdogan did not help the relationship either when he was quoted as listing Zionism, the founding ideal of the Jewish state among "crimes against humanity". His argument that that remark was somehow "misunderstood" would have struck most Israelis as unconvincing.

The two countries will now once again exchange ambassadors and the long process will begin of restoring the trust at government level that would ideally underpin the diplomatic relationship.

It will not be easy - but you can bet the US will be standing in the wings prodding its two allies into carrying on down the difficult path on which they have now re-embarked.