As UN Gaza Flotilla Inquiry Opens, a Chance for Improved Turkey- Israel Relations?

Article excerpt

The UN inquiry into Israel's Gaza flotilla raid, which left 8 Turks and one Turkish-American dead, opens today. Analysts say incentives are strong for both Turkey and Israel to repair their tattered alliance.

The UN investigation into Israel's Gaza flotilla raid that left 8 Turks and one Turkish-American dead opens today with Turkey insisting that Israel bears full responsibility for the deaths and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak saying a Turkish aid group's attempt to breach the economic blockade of Gaza was a "deliberate provocation."

The UN investigation will start with Secretary General Ban Ki- moon meeting with the four-member panel, which includes both an Israeli and a Turkish representative. The panel will investigate the fatal Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid boat.

"I am grateful for the spirit of constructive engagement that has made this unprecedented panel possible," Mr. Ban said Monday, hinting at an Israel-Turkey rapprochement that both sides as well as common ally Washington seem keen to achieve. "I am confident that this initiative will contribute to regional stability."

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

Israel's participation in the UN probe is unprecedented, coming after years of criticizing UN bias and resisting intense international pressure to change its heavy-handed approach. But it also came with key conditions - among them, says Israel, Mr. Ban's agreement behind the scenes that the probe would not directly question Israeli soldiers.

Yesterday, Ban denied making that promise, throwing into question Israel's cooperation. An Israeli government statement said: "Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu makes it absolutely clear that Israel will not cooperate with and will not take part in any panel that seeks to interrogate Israeli soldiers."

The last-minute dispute signals the myriad red lines and potentially conflicting demands that the panel will have to navigate as it takes up its work today.

The UN panel is expected to examine internal Israeli and Turkish investigations and report back to Ban by mid-September. Israel's military completed its probe of the incident several weeks ago, while an inquiry into the raid's legality headed by former Israeli Supreme Court judge Jacob Turkel began questioning top Israeli leaders this week.

A broader mandate?

Some in Israel are seeking a broader mandate for the UN inquiry, including an examination of the Turkish NGO behind the flotilla - which some Israelis allege has militant links - and the necessity of Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, which Israel says is needed to prevent Hamas from receiving weapons.

The Turkish government, which is under domestic pressure to display its achievements before a Sept. 12 referendum, is likely to press for an apology and demand compensation.

"If it's money, it's not so hard. We have money," says Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat in Turkey who helped negotiate compensation for Turkish victims during Israel's war with Lebanon in the 1980s. "But when it's honor, that's much harder."

Turkey has also asked that the panel report directly to the UN Security Council, whose rotating presidency Turkey will assume in September.

The UN inquiry will be chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and Alvaro Uribe, who just stepped down as Colombia's president. Mr. Uribe's addition as vice chair was seen by many as crucial to Israel's agreement to join the panel.

Uribe knows well the kind of criticism Israel faces for fighting militant groups. …