Israel ‘hit flotilla harder than Turkey expected,’ former Turkish diplomat says
ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Former Turkish Ambassador to Tel Aviv Oğuz Çelikkol says many Israelis approve neither of the 'low seat crisis' nor of the deadly attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla. HÜRRİYET photos, Levent KULUIsrael’s military intervention on the Gaza-bound aid ship the Mavi Marmara, which left 10 Turks dead, took the Turkish side by surprise, according to Oğuz Çelikkol, who was Turkey’s ambassador to Tel Aviv when the incident took place in 2010.
“We knew the crisis was coming but we did not foresee that it would result like that,” he said. “Obviously, we were not expecting Israel to let the humanitarian aid reach Gaza, but we thought the intervention method would be different,” added Çelikkol, whose book “From One Minute to Mavi Marmara” has just been published in Turkey.
What motivated you to write the book?
It was a very critical period in Turkish–Israeli relations. I wanted to have the developments registered from the perspective of what I saw from Israel. There have always been ups and downs in Turkish–Israeli relations; Turkish envoys have been pulled back twice before. In the past, this was related to the Palestinian question, but this time the crisis erupted directly in Turkish–Israeli relations. At that time, those relations had become an issue in internal politics as well.
In the section where you explain the “low seat crisis” [the meeting with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who told a press member that the Turkish envoy was sitting on a lower chair than him as a reaction to Turkey] you seem to give the message that this treatment came from the least expected person.
Exactly. Some asked why I had trusted him. Obviously, I did not know him. But he was known to have warm relations with Turkey. At the meeting he was very warm to me; he shook my hand, paid compliments, but then we found out about the plot, which had been engineered in such a way that I would be unaware of it. At that time, we knew the stance of Ayalon’s party, Israel is our home. But the presence of a person like Ayalon who was known to have warm relations with Turkey was seen to be an opportunity for Turkey.
How should we analyze this crisis? Was it a decision of the state put into action by Ayalon; or was it the engineering of one person, Ayalon himself?
My take is that this was the engineering of the party, Israel is our home. As far as I could see, a great majority of the Israeli nation did not approve and felt sorry for it. This is not in the book, but I went out for lunch with my colleagues after the incident. There was a tremendous show of sympathy at the restaurant. People came to our table, apologized and invited us to their tables.
This was an incident unseen in diplomatic history. There are incidents where envoys are mistreated; but you do it to their face, you don’t do it from behind.
When you look back today, do you think you should have done something else?
Not at all. This was a person who was known to have warm relations with Turkey and who was also at that time giving warm statements about relations with Turkey. There was no reason to suspect him.
You claim in the book that until 2009 not much changed in bilateral ties, but Israel’s operation in Gaza in 2009 was a turning point.
Of course, there was accumulation. We saw more critical statements from Turkish officials against Israel.
Yet while the Palestinian question has always affected Turkish–Israeli relations, this time it had an almost completely detrimental effect.
The reason was the nature of the government in Israel, the fact that its Foreign Ministry was in the hands of Israel is our home.
But a foreign observer could very well argue that the conservative base of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP] may also have played a role in the deterioration of relations.
Of course they may have done, but my purpose is to give a perspective from Israel. When you look to the past you see that Turkey reacted against Israel on several occasions, former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit even said that what Israel was doing was akin to genocide. All of this did not lead to a break up in relations. But this time the reaction coming from Israel is very different; so different that they could even think of engineering a plot against an envoy.
But isn’t there any point where Turkey could also be criticized?
There was serious dialogue going on between Israel and Syria via Turkey. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister at that time, came to Turkey and then the operation in Gaza took place one week later. This certainly had a negative effect on the Turkish side.
Yes, but governments are not supposed to be emotional.
I’m trying to say as well that part of the government in Israel at that time was too emotional. Ayalon just wanted to take revenge for the “Valley of the Wolves” controversy [the Turkish TV series whose anti–Israeli content angered Tel Aviv, which resulted in the “low seat crisis”].
But you could also claim Turkey also acted too emotionally after the Gaza operation.
But the whole world reacted to the Gaza operation. It was not just Turkey.
In the case of the Mavi Marmara, did you see the crisis coming?
We knew the crisis was coming but we did not foresee that the crisis would result like that. We thought Israel would intervene in the flotilla, but we were expecting a more pacific intervention; perhaps to make the ship’s propeller malfunction, or to wait until it reached Israeli territorial waters and then issue a warning. Obviously, we were not expecting Israel to let the humanitarian aid reach Gaza, but we thought the intervention method would be different. Not only me but almost everyone was of that opinion. A military intervention of that type was hard to expect.
Did you advise Ankara not to let Mavi Marmara go?
The position of Turkey was very clear at that time. It was a humanitarian aid initiative. There were nationals of other countries as well and no government asked their nationals not to go. Our advice to the Israeli side was to ask them to be calm, to look at it from a humanitarian perspective, and to tell them that one way or the other the ship would be diverted to Egypt.
In your opinion what went wrong?
Israel accepts that it made a mistake. That’s why I’ve been wondering about whether the Israeli side possessed wrong information about the possible presence of weapons on the ship, or about the fact that there could have been armed resistance to their intervention. Under normal circumstances we expected them to intervene, but in a rather different way. To resort to such a violent intervention, with commandos descending on the ship, this is what makes us suspect that perhaps they had some wrong information about the ship. The incident about the Egyptian national [who was on board the Mavi Marmara] who decided not to fly on the plane that was taking every survivor to Turkey raised my suspicions. The rumors we heard about this person being an Egyptian intelligence officer increased my suspicions. At that time it was a known fact that Egypt was very concerned about Turkey’s increased visibility in the region. This is a theory that comes to the fore when we investigate why Israel intervened so violently on the ship.
You don’t sound optimistic about Israel-Turkey relations.
Israel is distancing itself from a solution to the Palestinian issue. Without a solution to the Palestinian problem you cannot expect Israel’s relations to improve with Muslim-majority countries. This is valid for Turkey as well. But that does not mean there should not be normalization. These crises have left deep scars on both nations. They will take time to heal. Israel has apologized and there seems to be a general agreement on the final details. Turkish–Israeli relations need to normalize, especially now that the Middle East is passing through very difficult times. But normalization of relations does not mean that Turkey will give up its support for the Palestinians, or that the military dimension of relations will continue.
Who is Oğuz Çelikkol ?
Born in 1950, Oğuz Çelikkol graduated from Ankara University’s Faculty of Political Science. He got his master’s degree from the United States’ South Carolina University and his doctorate degree from Istanbul University’s Faculty of Economy.
Çelikkol worked for 37 years in the Turkish Foreign Ministry, including a period as consul general in Los Angeles between 1992–97. He also served as representative at the U.N. in New York, Beirut and Washington.
After working in the Foreign Ministry’s Middle East department, Çelikkol was appointed as Turkey’s ambassador to Damascus in 2000, later serving as ambassador in Athens (2008–09), Tel Aviv (2009–10) and Bangkok (2010-12).
After deciding to retire, he is currently teaching at İstanbul’s Kültür University.