By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; A08
JERUSALEM -- Tensions between Turkey and Israel escalated Monday as Turkey's foreign minister said his country would sever diplomatic relations with Israel unless it either apologizes for its deadly raid on a Turkish aid ship or accepts an international inquiry into the incident.
The threat came as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu prepares to meet Tuesday in Washington with President Obama. A Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity before the foreign minister made his comments, said Obama plans to press the Israeli leader to apologize to defuse tensions.
"The president is very concerned about the breakdown in Turkish-Israeli relations," the diplomat said. Asked if he thought Obama could persuade Netanyahu to apologize, the diplomat added: "I'm sure he'll give it the college try."
Senior Obama administration officials would neither confirm nor deny the president's intentions for the meeting with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has ruled out an apology for the May 31 raid by Israeli naval commandos, which left nine Turks, including one Turkish American, dead. Israel was trying to prevent the aid ship from breaching a naval blockade Israel maintains on the Hamas-led Gaza Strip when commandos were met with resistance as they boarded the boat.
"Israel cannot apologize because its soldiers had to defend themselves to avoid being lynched by a crowd," Netanyahu said Friday in an interview with Israel's Channel 1. "We regret the loss of life." On Monday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel has "no intention of apologizing to Turkey."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review that "Israelis have three options: They will either apologize or acknowledge an international-impartial inquiry and its conclusion. Otherwise, our diplomatic ties will be cut off." Israel has appointed its own investigative commission, but critics say it is not sufficiently independent.
It was not clear if Davutoglu's remarks meant that Turkey was considering a full severing of ties or, as some Turkish observers said was more likely, a cut only in diplomatic contacts that would still allow trade, travel and other cooperation to continue.
The raid led Turkey to recall its ambassador from Israel, cancel three sets of joint military exercises and prevent Israeli military planes from crossing its airspace.
Netanyahu had tried to defuse tensions by secretly dispatching a government minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, to meet Davutoglu last week. The meeting produced no concrete results other than to rankle Israeli cabinet members, such as Lieberman, who resented being sidestepped.
Turkish leaders have also demanded that Israel pay compensation to the victims and lift the siege on Gaza.
To demonstrate its willingness to loosen restrictions on Gaza, Israel on Monday released a revised list of goods that are banned from entering the territory, except in approved circumstances.
The new list is designed to allow more goods into Gaza, without giving Hamas access to materials that could allow the group to build up its military arsenal. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor called the move an "important step" that will "make a significant improvement in the lives of people in Gaza, while keeping weapons out of the hands of Hamas."
But the core obstacles to resuming normal life in Gaza -- the restrictions on obtaining raw materials for factories, exporting goods and traveling outside the territory -- remain largely unchanged.
In addition, a wide array of items, including fertilizers, glass components, gas tanks, drilling equipment and water disinfection materials, are still "controlled" because of their potential use for violence. Israel is also continuing to restrict the import into Gaza of cement, concrete, steel, asphalt, shipping containers and construction vehicles.
Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut in Washington and special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and Gul Tuysuz in Istanbul contributed to this report.