Barak Ravid
June 21, 2011 - 12:00am

Israeli and Turkish officials have been holding secret direct talks to try to solve the diplomatic crisis between the two countries, a senior official in Jerusalem said. The negotiations are receiving the Americans' support.

A source in the Turkish Foreign Ministry and a U.S. official confirmed that talks are being held, though in Israel the prime minister and foreign minister's aides declined to comment.

The talks are being held between an Israeli official on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, a firm supporter of rehabilitating ties with Israel.

Talks are also being held between the Israeli representative on the UN inquiry committee on last year's Gaza flotilla, Yosef Ciechanover, and Turkey's representative on the committee, Ozdem Sanberk. The two, who have been working together for several months on the UN committee, pass on messages between Israel and Turkey and have taken pains to draft understandings to end the crisis.

In addition, the U.S. administration has held talks with senior Turkish officials, mainly to foil the flotilla to Gaza due later this month, but also in a bid to improve relations with Israel.

On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to her Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu and expressed satisfaction with the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation's announcement that the ship the Mavi Marmara would not take part in the flotilla this time around, officials said.

Last Thursday, Netanyahu called a meeting with a clutch of ministers on the Gaza flotilla and relations with Turkey. A source familiar with the debate said the main sticking point was whether Israel would apologize to Turkey or only express regret, and whether the Turkish families who will be compensated for their loved ones killed in Israel's raid last year would be able to file further suits.

This is Israel and Turkey's third attempt to reach understandings that would end the crisis. The first attempt took place after the Carmel fire in December. Ciechanover and Sanberk reached partial understandings, but Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman objected to Israel's apologizing to Turkey for last year's flotilla events, and the talks were halted.

Another unsuccessful attempt took place two months ago.

One of the developments behind the current attempt to solve the crisis is the UN inquiry committee's report on the flotilla, due to be released in the first week of July. Israel and Turkey's representatives on the committee want to use the report's release as an opportunity for both countries to put the affair behind them and rehabilitate ties.

The draft report submitted a few weeks ago led to disagreements on both sides, which delayed the release.

The disagreements, however, appear to have been solved because both Israel and Turkey have agreed to the report's release at the beginning of July.

The second development is the election in Turkey last week. Senior Jerusalem officials say Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan could not display flexibility in Turkey's demands of Israel before the vote. After winning the election, Erdogan is likely to take a more pragmatic stance, they say.

The third development pertains to the situation in Syria. President Bashar Assad's violent crackdown and the stream of refugees to Turkey have shaken Ankara. The Turks were especially surprised Assad refused their demands, lied to them and prefers the Iranian patronage, Israeli officials say.

"The situation in Syria creates big problems for both Turkey and Israel, and they have a joint interest in solving the problems between us," a senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official said.

In recent weeks, Israel and Turkey have made several significant gestures toward each other. Davutoglu called on the IHH to reconsider taking part in the next Gaza flotilla. On Friday, the IHH said the Mavi Marmara would not take part.

Netanyahu made favorable comments about Turkey after the election results became known. He said Israel was not interfering in Turkey's internal affairs and had not chosen for relations to deteriorate. Netanyahu said at a news conference in Rome that Israel had no desire to continue a tense relationship and would be happy to have any opportunity to improve the situation.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017