Why did it take so long for Israel to say sorry for the flotilla raid?
- By Suzanne NosselSuzanne Nossel is executive director of the Pen American Center and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.
It’s great that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized last week for the 2010 Israeli commando raid that killed nine Turkish civilians on a Gaza-bound flotilla. But the apology came three years too late. The delay contributed to a host of preventable diplomatic, economic, and geopolitical harms, including some that may prove incurable. Netanyahu’s refusal to utter the word "sorry" any sooner was driven by the heart, not the head. Had Jerusalem — with the support of Washington — put pragmatism ahead of pride, the flotilla issue might have been put to rest some time ago, and a cascade of ill consequences averted.
Many facts about the flotilla raid remain contested, but six investigations — two by Turkey, two by Israel, and two by the United Nations — tell us this much: In May 2010, a six-ship flotilla of boats carrying humanitarian aid and bent on challenging Israel’s naval boycott of the Gaza Strip was intercepted by an Israeli commando raid. Aboard one boat, the Mavi Marmara, a violent confrontation led to the deaths of nine activists, eight Turkish and one Turkish-American, by gunshot wounds. Ten of the Israeli commandos were also injured, one seriously.
The flotilla incident had serious consequences for already-deteriorating Israeli-Turkish relations, and reverberated across the region, in Europe and in Washington. Israel and Turkey had enjoyed a mostly harmonious period of close economic, tourism and military ties during the 1990s through to the mid-2000s — in 2006, the Israeli Foreign Ministry described its relationship with Turkey as "perfect." Dealings between Ankara and Jerusalem then soured due to friction over the 2008-09 Israeli military operation in Gaza and stagnation in the peace process. Yet trade remained robust, as did defense cooperation. For a time, Turkey even played a role as intermediary brokering secret talks between Israel and Syria.
After the flotilla raid, however, the fissure between Ankara and Jerusalem widened into a gulf. Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador in Ankara and suspended military ties. Israel lost billions of dollars in canceled defense contracts. Domestically, the split strengthened the hand of Turkey’s conservative Islamists and heightened Erdogan’s support from that camp. The flotilla standoff also complicated U.S.-Turkey relations. In the latest example, Erdogan’s late February remark that Zionism constituted a "crime against humanity," (which he would later clarify) triggered condemnation from the White House at a time when the two countries are trying to cooperate closely on Syria.
Some analysts have argued that the flotilla was little more than a convenient excuse, allowing Erdogan to cloak powerful, preexisting anti-Israel instincts under cover of justifiable anger. But even if that’s true, the rift had deleterious consequences. When upheavals began in a half-dozen Arab states in 2011, Israel and Turkey could not turn to one another amid the region’s numerous rocky transitions and had to court other allies instead. The incident also deepened Israel’s isolation at the United Nations, helping pave the way for the 2012 Palestinian bid for recognition as a state to garner overwhelming support in the General Assembly, including from many countries in Europe.
The question of whether an Israeli apology for the flotilla raid was warranted or wise is now moot. After refusing for almost three years to say sorry, Netanyahu — a man not known for self-effacement — finally saw the wisdom in saying what the Turks were waiting to hear. It likely helped that Israel’s recent elections were behind him, and that the right-wingers most hostile to an apology lost ground at the polls (Netanyahu’s hard-line ex-foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, slammed the apology, saying it would demoralize the Israel Defense Forces and embolden radicals in the region). The prolonged chaos and intensifying threat along both countries’ borders as a result of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal onslaught against his people may also have been a motivating factor.
Whether Netanyahu was motivated by genuine remorse or by practical considerations is beside the point. If his standoffishness served Erdogan’s ulterior purposes of rallying anti-Israel sentiment in the Muslim world, all the more reason for Jerusalem to get the apology over with faster and deprive the Turkish leader the cover of righteous indignation. The unwillingness to apologize sooner illustrates a familiar pattern of the Netanyahu government’s high-minded yet unproductive reaction to the ostracism it faces internationally. The costs that resulted from the delay are a potent reminder that apologies can be a gesture of strength rather than weakness.
An apology and quick reconciliation after the flotilla incident were not out of the question. Global reaction to the flotilla flowed through two U.N. vessels, the Security Council in New York and the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. The Security Council took a measured approach to the explosive incident, but the Human Rights Council prolonged the standoff. While the difference is due in part to the distinct make-up and politics of the two bodies, also important were how Washington and Jerusalem played their hands in each. If the aim was to minimize the fallout from the raid on Israel’s global standing, the shrewd approach followed in New York should have been mirrored in Geneva.
Within a day of the raid, the Security Council, with U.S. leadership, reached consensus on a statement condemning "those acts which resulted in the loss of at least 10 civilians and many wounded" and calling for a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation conforming to international standards." Artfully, the council dodged the question of who would conduct the investigation: Israel or the U.N. The United States’ decision to join that statement meant that Jerusalem was at least tacitly on board; the administration would have coordinated with Israel on such a high-stakes subject. Rather than asking the United States to block or veto Security Council action, Israel wisely concluded it was better for the Americans to use their leverage to help shape a moderate outcome, one that centered on a credible investigation to determine the facts. In turn, the muted wording of the Security Council text showed the lengths the Turks and their allies were willing to go to get U.S. support. The Turks had initially demanded a strong condemnation of Israel’s "act of aggression" and "punishment" for those responsible. Getting the U.S. on board with a statement that implied criticism of Israel was a coup for them, and in return they agreed to language that was acceptable to Washington and — at least indirectly — Jerusalem. The resulting text avoided a rush to judgment and set in motion a credible investigation that could help hold those guilty of any abuses accountable, and point out ways to prevent such crisis in future.
Three days later, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, published an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that Israel owed Turkey an apology. He stressed that the raid occurred in international waters and represented the first attack on Turkish civilians in the country’s 87-year modern history. He also underscored the two countries’ history of close diplomatic relations, noted Turkey’s status as the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel, and cited his own prior service as Turkey’s ambassador in Israel.
The combination of this request and the unified international concern expressed at the Security Council would have seemed to make an apology the obvious next step to defuse the situation. That the full facts weren’t ye
t known could have made it easier to say sorry, making possible a heartfelt statement of contrition rather than a definitive acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
One reason no apology came may be that the day after the Security Council statement, the flotilla issue was debated at the HRC in Geneva, a fractious 47-member body with a history of heavy focus on Israel. Israel and Washington deplore the HRC’s bias, and the United States steadfastly votes against anything Israel-related there. Israel has consistently made clear its preference that the United States vote no down the line on Israel resolutions, even though it means the resulting HRC texts lack Washington’s moderating influence. Sustaining the Security Council compromise in Geneva would have been a heavy diplomatic lift, though the U.S. team there thought that it was potentially doable. Getting there would have required, though, that Washington break its pattern of disengagement on Israel-related resolutions and use its leverage to extract wording that matched that of the New York statement. It would also have meant sustaining the Security Council’s artful dodge over who would conduct the investigation it mandated: Israel or the U.N.
That didn’t happen. Washington and Jerusalem mistrusted the HRC and reflexively stiffened their spines in protest rather than leaning in for compromise. In the hours between Security Council and HRC action, several ambassadors, including a U.S. deputy ambassador, also punctured through the papered-over disagreement over who would carry out the investigation, forcing that dispute into the open. These ill-considered statements made an accommodation at the HRC impossible. The HRC predictably reverted to its default mode of stinging criticism of Israel with scant regard for a still-hazy set of facts. With U.S. leverage removed from the equation, the resulting resolution harshly condemned Israel and established its own HRC fact-finding mission to investigate Israeli actions. This outcome was a clear loss for Jerusalem, which feared a repeat of the Goldstone fact-finding mission that had accused Israel of war crimes in the 2008-09 Gaza operation and called for an International Criminal Court probe. True to form, the United States was one of just three countries to vote no.
By the time that resolution was passed, barely 48 hours after the incident itself, prospects for a swift apology and a single, widely supported international investigation had vanished. Israel was in a defensive crouch and Turkey and the Palestinians had their allies riled up. In the ensuing months of overlapping investigations, accusations and revelations deepened the fissures. Turkey did little to abate the crisis, claiming the high ground of awaiting an apology that most of the world thought appropriate.
The reasons for Netanyahu’s reluctance to apologize to Turkey are not hard to discern: The flotilla was deliberately provocative, the actions of the Israeli commandos occurred in self-defense and were justified, according to Israel’s account, and relations with Turkey were deteriorating anyway. But just because Netanyahu’s position was defensible does not mean it was wise. Had Washington and Jerusalem been bound and determined to extend the New York compromise to Geneva, even though it would have meant setting aside longstanding U.S. policy, they might have averted a frosty and costly two years in Israeli in Turkey relations.
It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu’s apology will restore any Turkish goodwill. It’s certainly smart of him to try. The question is why he didn’t figure this out a lot sooner.