Turkey threatens to close airspace to Israel


RELATIONS BETWEEN Israel and Turkey slumped to a new low yesterday after Ankara threatened to close its airspace to Israeli civilian aircraft unless it receives a public apology and compensation for its citizens killed in a commando raid on a Turkish ship sailing to Gaza on May 31st in defiance of an Israeli naval blockade.

“Ankara’s indignation over Israel will lead to further retaliatory measures in all fields if Israel refuses,” said the Turkish Zamandaily.

Turkey has already recalled its ambassador, frozen orders for military equipment and closed Turkish airspace to Israeli military flights, ending nearly 20 years of close co-operation during which Turkey was Israel’s most important Muslim ally.

Turkey’s demands were spelled out in a secret meeting in Brussels on Wednesday between Turkish foreign minister Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu and Israeli trade minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Those talks triggered a row within the coalition of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu because they were held without the knowledge of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

After the meeting, Turkish officials said they believed Israel was considering paying compensation to the victims aboard the Mavi Marmara, now docked in Haifa port. Mr Ben-Eliezer denied he agreed to any compensation.

The deepening row has already cost the Turkish economy an estimated $400 million after more than 50,000 Israeli tourists initiated an unofficial boycott and cancelled their holiday reservations.

But Mr DavutoÄŸlu appears determined to make Israel pay for its attack.

“DavutoÄŸlu reminded Ben-Eliezer of Turkey’s demands from Israel, including an apology, payment of compensation to families of those killed and wounded, an international inquiry and an end to the blockade of Gaza,” said a Turkish foreign ministry spokesman. “The meeting provided an opportunity to convey in person the steps we expect to see taken so that relations can be repaired.”

“We will continue to pursue the issue,” Mr DavutoÄŸlu said in parliament. “We gave voice to our demands. We have brought our demands to the agenda at every opportunity.” A senior Turkish diplomat told Zamanthat Turkey did not want to sever relations with Israel but was ready for such an eventuality. “Destroying such ties is easier than establishing them. But we are ready to face the negative impact of cutting these ties in an eventual absence of an apology from the Israeli side,” he said.

The Turkish Hurriyetdaily said the Israeli government had signalled it was willing to consider compensation, paving the way for further talks.

“There will be a second meeting if the Israeli side takes a step toward [meeting] our demands,” a Turkish diplomat told Hurriyet.

But the report was quickly denied in Jerusalem. “We have no plans to do that, and the minister did not promise anything in that regard during his meeting with the Turkish foreign minister two days ago,” Mr Ben-Eliezer’s office said.

US officials, who were instrumental in initiating Wednesday’s talks after weeks of tension between the two countries, expressed the hope that relations could still be salvaged.

“A relationship between Turkey and Israel is not only in the best interest of the region, it supports our interests in the region as well,” said US state department spokesman Philip J. Crowley. “We certainly support this kind of dialogue that hopefully can help repair the fractures that have existed in recent weeks and months.”