After over a year of deep freeze in Israeli-Turkish ties, talks about a reconciliation agreement between the two nations have resumed with a secret meeting between Foreign Minister director general Dore Gold and his Turkish counterpart, Feridun Sinirlioglu.
A senior Israeli official said that Gold secretly left for Rome on Monday to meet Sinirlioglu, who is responsible for the “Israel portfolio” in the Turkish government, and led the Turkish negotiating team in resolving the crisis with Israel.
Gold, considered a close associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and recently appointed director general of the foreign ministry, did not makes his plans known to either National Security Advisor Yossi Cohen, nor the PMO’s special envoy to Turkey, Joseph Ciechanover, who has handled ties with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government for five years, and kept lines of communication open with Sinirlioglu.
Cohen and Ciechanover, who compiled the draft agreement in Febuary 2014, learned about the meeting between Gold and the Turkish official after the fact. Gold’s predecessor, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, was also a member of the negotiating team with Turkey. The senior Israeli official, who asked to remain nameless due to the sensitivity of the issue, noted that before Gold left for Rome, there was no official discussion on the status of negotiations with Turkey. Foreign Ministry spokesman Emanuel Nachshon refused to comment.
The meeting in Rome took place just weeks after the parliamentary elections in which Erdogan’s party failed to attain a majority that would allow it to continue altering the constitution. The election even forced Erdogan to form a governing coalition with a smaller party.
In March 2013, during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel, Netanyahu apologized to Erdogan on the phone for the civilian deaths during the Israeli naval raid on the Mavi Marmara, part of a Turkish flotilla to Gaza in May 2010, which led to the deterioration of relations and the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in September 2011.
Although the phone call led to negotiations between the two sides, they quickly stalled. In December 2013, after a few months without progress, there was a breakthrough, and an Israeli negotiating team traveled to talks in Istanbul. A few weeks later, the Turkish negotiating team came to Jerusalem. The breakthrough came as the two sides were willing to be flexible regarding the amount of reparations for the families of the civilians who were hurt or killed during the attack on the Marmara.
Israel agreed to increase reparations to $20 million, and Netanyahu even ordered the negotiating team to offer another $2-3 million in order to put the issue to rest. The reparations were not paid directly to the families, but were transferred to a humanitarian foundation that will dispense the money to the families based on various criteria.
In February 2014, a draft of an agreement between the two states was written. Aside from the amount of reparations, the two countries agreed that the Turkish parliament would pass a law cancelling the lawsuits filed against Israel Defense Forces officers and soldiers that participated in the Marmara raid. Also, a framework for normalizing the relations was compiled. The Israeli team recommended that Netanyahu accept the deal, although he delayed his decision, despite his previous order to put the issue to rest.
A few weeks later, Obama pressed Erdogan to accept the deal, and end the rift with Israel. The senior Israeli officer said then that the draft agreement had been readied, but Netanyahu had yet to sign, prolonging the conflict. “The ball is in Netanyahu’s court,” said Erdogan to Obama then.