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U.N. Review Of Israeli Flotilla Raid Reopens Wounds

Sep 2, 2011
Originally published on September 7, 2011 12:06 pm

The U.N.'s review of an Israeli commando raid on a Turkish flotilla last year was intended to help resolve the matter, but its release Friday only seemed to reopen the wound.

While Israel was pleased that the panel found its blockade of Gaza legitimate, Turkey has expelled Israel's ambassador and downgraded relations.

Led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, the panel's report has a dual message for Israel. It says Israel's naval blockade of Gaza is a "legitimate security measure" meant to keep weapons out of the hands of Hamas, the militant group that runs the coastal territory.

But, the panel continues, the way Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish vessel trying to break the blockade last May was "excessive and unreasonable."

Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, says his country accepts the findings, with a few reservations. "We think it was a fair and balanced report. We are not necessarily accustomed to having fair and balanced reports coming out of the U.N.," he says.

Oren says Israelis hope this will close the chapter on the flotilla incident, but that Israel still won't apologize to Turkey. "We can't apologize for what the U.N. says was an attempt to violate and break a legal blockade that was necessary for Israel's defense," he says.

Without that apology, Turkey decided to kick out Israel's ambassador and other top officials and suspend all military agreements. Turkey's ambassador in Washington, Namik Tan, says everyone knew this was coming.

"This is in no way against the historic relationship between Turks and Jews. This is against the policies and illegal, I think, actions of the Israeli government," Tan says.

Israeli commandos killed nine people in the May 2010 incident. The Palmer report says forensic evidence shows that most were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range. Turkey's U.S. ambassador says his country will pursue legal action against those responsible.

"This incident happened in the middle of the Mediterranean, and I think Israel should understand that the Mediterranean is not a lake of its own," Tan says.

U.S. diplomats have tried to mend fences between Turkey and Israel. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with her Turkish counterpart in Paris. And there is reason for the U.S. to worry about having two key allies at loggerheads, according to Bulent Aliriza, who runs the Turkey program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The U.S. did try — and failed — to get the two countries to be on the same wavelength and to leave their differences behind, and frankly, at a time when they are grappling with all the implications of the Arab spring, this may be the last thing the administration wanted," Aliriza says.

And there doesn't seem to be an easy fix, he says.

"The current government in Turkey seems determined to push ahead in demanding an apology and the current government in Israel seems determined not to give way on this issue," Aliriza says. "And given the fact that they are on opposite sides of the Palestinian push for statehood at the United Nations later on this month, the relationship seems set likely to be even more tense in the weeks and perhaps months and years ahead."

Israeli officials say they value their relations with Turkey and want to move forward, and they are still studying the Turkish action.

Tan, the Turkish ambassador, argues it's next to impossible to have a sustainable peace in the Middle East in the absence of relations between the two countries.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, the United Nations released a long-awaited review of last year's Israeli raid on a Turkish flotilla heading for Gaza. The U.N. panel was meant to promote reconciliation between Turkey and Israel after the deadly incident. But so far, it's done the opposite. Israelis seem pleased with the findings that their blockade of Gaza is legitimate.

But NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that Turkey has thrown out Israel's ambassador and downgraded relations.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The panel, led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, has a dual message for Israel. It says Israel's naval blockade of Gaza is a legitimate security measure meant to keep weapons out of the hands of the militant group that runs the territory. But the way Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish vessel trying to break the blockade last year was, quote, excessive and unreasonable.

Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren says his country accepts the findings, with a few reservations.

KELEMEN: He says Israelis hope this will close the chapter on the flotilla incident, but Israel still won't apologize to Turkey.

OREN: We can't apologize for what the U.N. said was an attempt to violate and break a legal blockade that was necessary for Israel's defense.

KELEMEN: But since Israel won't apologize, Turkey decided today to kick out Israel's ambassador and other top officials, and suspend all military agreements. Namik Tan is Turkey's ambassador here in Washington.

NAMIK TAN: This is, in no way, against the historic relationship between Turks and Jews. This is against the policies and illegal, I think, actions of the Israeli government.

KELEMEN: Nine people were killed by Israeli commandos in the incident in May of 2010. The Palmer report says forensic evidence shows that most were shot multiple times, including in the back or at close range. Turkey's ambassador tells NPR his country will pursue legal action against those responsible.

TAN: This incident happened in the middle of the Mediterranean. And I think Israel should understand that the Mediterranean is not a lake of its own.

KELEMEN: The U.S. State Department says it regrets the fact that Turkey and Israel couldn't resolve their differences before the report was released today. There is reason for the U.S. to worry, according to Bulent Aliriza, who runs the Turkey program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

BULENT ALIRIZA: The U.S. did try, and failed, to get the two countries to be on the same wavelength, and to leave their differences behind. And frankly, at a time when they're grappling with all the implications of the Arab Spring, this may be one of the last things that the administration wanted.

KELEMEN: And Aliriza doesn't see an easy fix.

ALIRIZA: The current government in Turkey seems determined to push ahead in demanding an apology. And the current government in Israel seems determined not to give way on this issue. And given the fact that they are on opposite sides of the Palestinian push for statehood at the United Nations later on this month, the relationship seems set likely to be even more tense in the weeks, and perhaps months and years, ahead.

KELEMEN: And Turkey's ambassador, Namik Tan, argues it's next to impossible to have a sustainable peace in the Middle East in the absence of relations between Turkey and Israel. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.