Oil sparks new Israel-Turkey crisis

A rig being pulled through the Bosphorus. An Israel-Cyprus agreement on oil exploration has enraged Turkey

A rig being pulled through the Bosphorus. An Israel-Cyprus agreement on oil exploration has enraged Turkey

A new agreement on exploration rights at sea between Israel and Cyprus has once again pushed Israel's relationship with Turkey into a diplomatic crisis. Meanwhile, the talks to end the impasse over Israel's apology for the incident of the Gaza flotilla have bogged down.

Three weeks ago, Turkey's willingness to help Israel fight the blaze on Mount Carmel, signalled by sending two fire-fighting aircraft to battle the flames, gave hope that the stormy relations between the two nations - not long ago strategic allies - could be on the mend.

Turkey's assistance even led to a rare phone call of gratitude from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Turkey's Recep Tayep Erdogan, after two years of not talking. This week though, it seemed that a rapprochement is still far away.

The Ankara government's latest gripe with Israel is a new treaty, signed last week between Israel and Cyprus, demarking areas of oil and gas exploration rights between the two countries. Turkey does not recognise the Greek-Cypriot government of Nicosia, supporting instead the breakaway Turkish minority on the island, and now claims that the agreement between Jerusalem and Nicosia is "a challenge to Turkey's regional interests".

Israel's ambassador to Turkey was summoned last Friday to the Foreign Ministry in Ankara where he was told that the Turkish government demands Israel cancel the agreement. Israel's Foreign Ministry did not comment on the Turkish protest, but a senior diplomat said: "If anyone thought that all it would take was a couple of Turkish planes to fix the ties between the two countries, it is now clear that a lot more work is needed. We still are not clear that Erdogan has any interest in fixing things at all."

The agreement with Cyprus is another sign of the warming of ties between Israel and Turkey's regional rival, Greece. The countries have held two joint military exercises in recent months, signed a series of co-operation agreements and prime ministers Netanyahu and George Papandreou have visited each other's capitals. The new closeness with Greece has not been lost on Turkey's leaders.

In the wake of the Carmel fire, high-level talks were held between the two governments in an attempt to reach an understanding that would end the crisis following the deaths of nine Turkish civilians in the Israeli Navy's operation against the flotilla to Gaza.

The draft agreements had Israeli apologising for the deaths, without taking full responsibility for the incident, and agreeing to pay compensations to the families. In return, Turkey was to announce the end of the crisis and return its ambassador to Israel.

But despite initial hopes, the talks in Geneva have so far foundered over the exact wording of the apology and pressure in both countries on the negotiations. In Israel, the IDF high command and many of the government's ministers have voiced opposition, in public and behind the scenes, to any form of apology which will hint that the naval commandos, who overcame stiff and violent resistance, were in any way at fault.

Last updated: 1:44pm, December 22 2010