JERUSALEM – Facing a deepening crisis in Israel’s relations with Turkey, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday emphatically ruled out an apology for a deadly raid on a Turkish ship leading an aid flotilla to Gaza last year, but said he hoped the dispute between the two countries could somehow be resolved.
In his first public remarks since Turkey announced Friday that it was expelling Israel’s ambassador, Netanyahu expressed “regret for the loss of life” in the naval raid and asserted that Israel did not want to worsen relations, but he gave no ground on the Turkish demand for an apology.
Turkey’s downgrading of relations with Israel followed the leak of a United Nations report on the May 2010 flotilla incident. The report, first published by The New York Times, concluded that Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip was legal but that its troops used excessive force in the raid on the ship, in which nine Turks were killed in clashes with Israeli commandos.
Along with an apology, Turkey has demanded compensation for the families of the dead and the lifting of Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, which Israel says is intended to prevent arms smuggling to the territory, ruled by the militant Islamist group Hamas.
“We don’t have to apologize for the fact that naval commandos defended themselves against an assault by violent activists of the IHH,” Netanyahu said, referring to the Turkish group whose members were on board the ship, the Mavi Marmara. “We don’t have to apologize for acting to stop arms smuggling to Hamas, a terrorist organization that has already fired more than 10,000 missiles, rockets and mortar rounds at civilians.”
Netanyahu promised that Israel would defend the commandos involved in the raid “everywhere and in every forum.” He spoke in public remarks before the weekly meeting of his cabinet.
Turkey has said that it will pursue legal action against Israeli soldiers and officials involved in the lethal raid, and that it will also move to challenge the legality of the Israeli blockade of Gaza in the International Court of Justice. It has also warned that it will take steps to ensure freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean, an apparent reference to a stepped-up Turkish naval presence there.
An Israeli official who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject said that Israel was holding consultations on how to proceed with Washington, which had pressed Israel to agree to an apology in order to prevent a rift between two key American allies in the Middle East.
Netanyahu said he hoped “a way will be found to overcome the disagreement with Turkey. Israel has never wanted a deterioration of relations with Turkey, nor is Israel interested in such a deterioration now.”
But accounts by Israeli officials of months of negotiations with the Turks suggested substantial mistrust between the two nations, formerly strategic allies. The officials said that despite efforts to resolve the dispute, public positions taken by Turkish leaders raised doubts about their willingness to repair relations.