ANKARA, (AFP) – Turkish and Israeli officials met Sunday in Geneva in a bid to overcome a deep crisis over a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship in May as Turkey’s premier insisted on an apology and compensation.
The fence-mending talks followed Turkey’s dispatch of two helicopters to help fight a deadly forest fire in northern Israel, a gesture that raised hope of a thaw between the one-time allies.
“I can confirm that a meeting took place today in Geneva,” a Turkish foreign ministry official told AFP on the condition of anonymity.
He said foreign ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu met with an Israeli official, whom he could not name.
The official would not give other details.
Bilateral ties plunged into crisis on May 31 when Israeli forces killed nine Turks in a raid on an activist ship carrying aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip as part of an international campaign led by a Turkish Islamist charity.
Relations had been already strained over Israel’s devastating war on Gaza last year, amid Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s frequent outbursts against the Jewish state and his defence of radical Palestinian group Hamas.
Israel’s Haaretz daily reported Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had sent the Israeli representative on the UN committee investigating the flotilla raid, Yosef Ciechanover, to Geneva to meet with Sinirlioglu.
The two would try to draw up a draft agreement that would put and end to the crisis, the daily quoted a senior Israeli source as saying.
Erdogan, a fierce critic of Israel who heads a conservative government hailing from a banned Islamist movement, described Ankara’s assistance for the fire-fighting effort in Israel as “our humanitarian and Islamic duty.”
He ruled out improvement in ties unless the Jewish state apologised over the flotilla bloodshed and paid compensation to the victims’ families.
“Some say we should turn a new page… An apology must be offered first, compensation must be paid first,” Erdogan said Sunday in a speech in Sivas, central Turkey, Anatolia news agency reported.
“If a hand is extended, we will not leave it in the air… but we want to see that this hand is extended with sincerity.
“No one should expect us to keep silent and forfeit law and justice as long as the blood spilled in the Mediterranean is not cleared,” he said.
On Friday, Netanyahu thanked Turkey for its help in the fire disaster and telephoned Erdogan to convey his gratitude.
“We very much appreciate this mobilisation and I am certain that it will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries, Turkey and Israel,” he said in a statement.
The lingering chill was visible only a day before when Turkey’s interior minister alluded Israel might be linked to the leaking of US cables to the WikiLeaks web site, saying the Jewish state appeared to be “benefitting” from the scandal.
The cables revealed US and Israeli unease over Turkey’s close contacts with Iran and Erdogan’s criticism of Israel, which had raised fears that NATO’s sole Muslim-majority member is drifting away from the West.
Erdogan “hates Israel” on religious grounds, one cable from Ankara said, including also the Israeli ambassador’s description of Erdogan as “a fundamentalist.”
In an earlier attempt at dialogue, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Israeli Trade Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer met secretly in Brussels on June 30, but the meeting sparked tensions within Israel’s ruling coalition.
In response to the flotilla raid, Ankara recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and cancelled joint military exercises. It also twice denied permission to Israeli military aircraft to use its air space.
Turkey and Israel had enjoyed a decade of close ties since 1996 when they signed a military cooperation agreement.