Nearly seven months after the military operation on the high seas to block a Turkish vessel from reaching the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may now issue an apology. His advisers support him. So does the White House. But if he follows through, Netanyahu will likely exacerbate a deepening diplomatic crisis with Turkey.
When IDF commandos intercepted the Mavi Marmara on May 31, weapons-wielding passengers attacked them as soon as they boarded. The clashes resulted in nine deaths – all Turks. The Turkish government soon demanded an apology. The Israelis insisted that the boat was full of violent Islamists who sought nothing more than an opportunity to do battle. The Israelis, in retrospect, were vindicated. The videos proved their case. Moreover, the flotilla turned out to be sponsored by a group with ties to Hamas and al-Qaida.
Today, however, multiple Middle East media reports indicate that the Israelis could soon apologize to Turkey for the incident. They might even pay reparations to the families of those killed to the tune of $100,000.
Not surprisingly, the move has its critics. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman opposes the deal. Defense Minister Ehud Barak doesn't like it either. Neither do senior IDF officers.
So, who exactly supports this? According to a senior Israeli diplomat, Netanyahu and his advisers do, despite some well-placed quotes to the contrary. The prime minister has been floating this story in the media as a trial balloon to assess how the Turkish and Israeli people will respond.
After witnessing an outpouring of sympathy from the Turkish people during this month's Carmel fire (during which, to the surprise of many, Turkey sent two fire-fighting planes), Netanyahu and his inner circle believe that while the Turkish government now champions Hamas, the people of Turkey stand with Israel. He reportedly thinks an apology might win the hearts of Turks and simultaneously get Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to somehow ease their anti-Israel rhetoric.
But this not Netanyahu's brainchild. During meetings last week in Geneva between Turkish and Israeli officials that were designed to ease tensions, it was the Turks that demanded an apology and reparations.
The carrot Turkey is dangling is a return to normalization by the summer 2011 elections. And the White House thinks this is a good idea, to boot.
Netanyahu is now close to taking the bait.
If he does apologize, it could lead to a deepening crisis in Israel-Turkey relations. Indeed, an apology would likely ensure an AKP victory in those elections. Moderate Turks will mistakenly believe that Ankara is finally mending fences with Israel, a key regional ally. Islamist Turks will mistakenly believe that Erdogan brought the Israelis to their knees, reinforcing the façade that Turkey could become a dominant regional power under the banner of Islamism. If the AKP remains atop Turkey's government, rapprochement is an impossibility. Erdogan's cozy ties to Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia keep getting cozier. And there's no room for Israel in that equation.
The AKP has steadily and methodically pried Turkey from its decades-old alliance since first coming to power in 2002. While the early years could be described as a "drift" away from Israel, the foreign policy in recent years has been openly hostile. From a public spat in January 2009 in Davos during which Erdogan insulted President Shimon Peres on the world stage, to a recent Rambo-style movie that depicts a Turkish team of special forces that mows down Israelis involved in the flotilla raid, the message is clear. There is little the Israelis can do to tempt Turkey's Islamist leaders out of the Iranian orbit.
Netanyahu's gambit is a weak one, at best. But if he insists on it, his best bet is to wait until after the June 2011 elections, a point when the AKP will have little to gain from an apology. In a best-case scenario, the AKP could be politically weakened.
But if he acts before the election, Netanyahu could aid the Islamist party and if this happens, he will have only himself to blame.
The writer, a former intelligence analyst at the US Treasury, is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.