On his way out the door Friday, President Obama capped a spectacularly successful visit to Israel by brokering reconciliation between America’s two most important strategic allies in the region, Israel and Turkey.
Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu stopped in a trailer on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport before the President boarded Air Force One so the Israeli prime minister could phone his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to apologize for the attack on a Gaza-bound Turkish ship Mavi Marmara by Israeli commandos in 2010.
Secretary of State John Kerry had been working on the reconciliation almost since the day he moved to Foggy Bottom from the Senate, capping it with a trip to Ankara earlier this month and repeated phone calls to Israeli officials. Obama closed the deal this week.
It is an important political achievement for the President and answers critics who said America was no longer playing a leadership role in the Middle East.
Netanyahu phoned Erdogan and “expressed Israel’s apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury and agreed to conclude an agreement on compensation/nonliability,” the Israeli leader’s office said.
Erdogan accepted the apology and told Netanyahu he valued the bilateral relationship and wanted to improve it.
Netanyahu has reportedly wanted to heal the rift by offering the demanded apology but was blocked by hawks in his cabinet – notably ex-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — and concerns about the legal liability implications and possible criminal charges against the Israeli commandos. The first of those problems is gone, but there is no official confirmation that the others have been cleared away.
It is in the strategic, financial, security and diplomatic interests of both countries to mend their rift and in the process do a favor for their great ally in Washington. It was a win-win-win.
The two sides still have a lot of repair work to do in working out the details after their often bitter exchanges – particularly by Erdogan, who has been described as harboring a visceral hatred of Israel and claims he was taken out of context when quoted saying Zionism is a crime against humanity.
The Mavi Marmara was carrying relief supplies to Gaza to protest the Israeli blockade. Israel has eased the blockade in some aspects since then and don’t be surprised to do more to facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance from Turkey as part of the reconciliation.
Repairing relations is important more so because of the shared interests of both countries in preventing the civil war in Syria from spreading across their borders and further destabilizing the region, and in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.