MK Nissim Ze'ev
MK Nissim Ze'ev Israel news photo: Flash 90

Turkish-Israeli relations have never been at a lower ebb, despite the rise in trade volume, and the professed strong cultural ties binding the two together. Business is brisk, but people are concerned. And there's no tourism, where once there was plenty.

For the past several months, Turkish journalists have been meeting off and on with Israeli leaders and lawmakers to hear the latest proposal from Jerusalem for a solution to the freeze between the two nations. Each time, the encounter is scrutinized  to determine whether this might be “the one” to lead the two former allies back to each other, and back down the tree they both seem to have climbed.

Now an Israeli delegation was invited finally to Turkey, albeit secretly and by interfaith organizations.

The visit – which took place last week – was quietly given the green light by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who signed off on the mission led by Shas Deputy Finance Minister Yitzchak Cohen and Shas MK Nissim Ze'ev. The foreign ministry's reservations were deep enough, however, that both the embassy in Ankara -- where only a third-tier Charge d'Affaires now reigns -- and the consulate in Istanbul personally sent their top official to meet the deputy minister in an effort to persuade him not to attend some of the meetings. Both MKs returned to Israel late Thursday night.

Other members of the delegation included Bar Ilan University lecturer and IDF Lt. Col. (res) Dr. Mordechai Kedar, several noted rabbis from Europe, and an Israeli journalist. The group spent two days in back-to-back meetings with Turkish officials and members of parliament at hotels in Ankara and Istanbul, discussing how best to get relations back on track.

In all meetings, the delegation made it clear that Israel would not “apologize” for the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident – but it would be willing to express condolences and pay compensation to the families.

Last month, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Netanyahu held similar meetings with Turkish journalists.

The prime minister told them, “Turkey and Israel are two important, strong and stable countries in this region which is very turbulent. The Turkish people and the Jewish people have had a long relationship. Turkey and Israel have had a long relationship.

“We have to keep looking for ways to restore the relationship we have,” Netanyahu said, “because I think it's important for each of our countries and particularly important for the stability of the region." Lieberman reiterated his stance that he too was willing to work on a solution with Ankara – but that Israel would not apologize over the Mavi Marmara.

The incident involved a “humanitarian aid” flotilla sent in May 2010 to illegally breach Israel's blockade of Gaza. It was considered a provocation by both sides, albeit from different perspectives. The Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara vessel, one of six in the flotilla, was later found to be carrying no aid whatsoever in its hold. Instead, the vessel was loaded with activists armed with knives, iron bars and clubs, ready to attack IDF soldiers boarding the ship when it refused to redirect to Ashdod, instead of Gaza. In the ensuing clash, IDF soldiers were gravely wounded – several critically – when the armed “activists” attacked them and took a few as hostages as they boarded. Their fellow soldiers shot their attackers, killing nine of them.

The fallout from the incident became the public centerpiece in the dispute that led to the reduction in relations between the two countries.

Turkey demanded that Israel return the activists to their home countries, return the vessel, apologize for the deaths, financially compensate the families of those killed, and identify and give up for criminal prosecution the officers and soldiers involved in the IDF operation. Most of the demands Israel eventually agreed to, in the interest of peace. But Israel was unwilling to give up the soldiers who had followed orders and defended the country's borders. Nor was Israel willing to apologize for deaths incurred by soldiers defending their own lives.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, until now, been determined to accept nothing less than a full apology over the deaths of the terror activists – a major sticking point. 

But many agree the Mavi Marmara incident may not be the only reason -- and possibly may not even be the key reason -- for the actual severing of ties. They also point out that the geopolitical landscape in the region has changed radically over the past year and a half, and that perhaps now is the time to reconsider a move for peace.

Relations had already begun to chill when Israel went to war for three weeks in the winter of 2008-2009 to silence the rockets and mortars fired at its southern towns and cities by Gaza's Hamas terrorist rulers. Operation Cast Lead was launched after countless warnings that had fallen on deaf ears, and leaflets dropped on Gaza neighborhoods prior to surgical strikes aimed at destroying rocket launching pads and weapons factories. It came after nearly 10 years of incessant terror attacks on Jewish men, women and children that left entire families rocket-scarred and a 95 percent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) rate in the southern region population.

But the war also alienated Israel from much of the international community, and from Turkey, its once long-time ally.

Ankara had recently drawn closer to its Muslim neighbors, possibly in response to repeatedly being rebuffed, especially by France and Germany, in its efforts to join the European Union. The constant rejection by non-Muslim nations perhaps finally was resulting in Turkey turning to those who had closer geographic – if not economic – ties. Developing geopolitical ties would take little time – and did.

Turkey's ruling AK Party (Justice and Development), which itself is Islamist, and party head Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became particularly supportive of the Palestinian Authority, and of Hamas. The war was fought with Gaza terrorists who consistently attacked southern Israeli Jews by launching their missiles from among the very center of their own residential areas. It resulted in a bonanza of pathetic-looking photos when Israel returned fire at the savvy Hamas, and infuriated Turkey.

During a panel discussion on Gaza at the January 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and after already presenting his own case, Erdogan exploded at Israeli President Shimon Peres. Peres was to have the final remarks, but Erdogan restrained the moderator physically and turned to Israel's president. "You are older than me,” he stated. “Your voice comes out in a very loud tone. And the loudness of your voice has to do with a guilty conscience. My voice, however, will not come out in the same tone. When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.” He then stalked out, vowing never to return, and in a news conference barely five minutes later, told reporters he was especially angry with the Washington Post journalist who moderated the panel, who he accused of bias in favor of Israel.

A number of people have marked Davos as the turning point in the souring in Turkish-Israeli relations.

During last week's meetings, Turkish and Israeli officials cautiously began to move ahead. They talked quietly about how they all can get down from the tree -- and whether there will be anything left on the ground if and when they get there.