New Gaza flotilla threatens fresh blow to Israel-Turkey ties

Israel killed nine Turkish activists in international waters

A new aid flotilla aiming to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip threatens to deal a fresh blow to Turkish-Israeli ties, a year after a bloody Israeli seizure of a Turkish activist ship.
Bilateral relations remain stuck in crisis after several meetings over the past year aimed at mending fences between the one-time allies failed to yield results, a Turkish diplomat said.
The two countries "have failed to reach an agreement" also on reconciliation proposals by a UN commission investigating the Israeli boarding of the ferry Mavi Marmara, he added.
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reported last week that Ankara was even threatening to withdraw from the commission, set up by UN chief Ban Ki-moon in August and chaired by New Zealand's former premier Geoffrey Palmer.
On May 31 last year, Israeli marines swarmed aboard the Mavi Marmara, the flagship of an international aid flotilla bound for blockaded Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists in international waters and plunging relations with Ankara into deep crisis.
The raid provoked worldwide condemnation and Turkish President Abdullah Gul said ties with Israel would "never be the same again".
The Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv was immediately recalled and has not yet returned to his post.
Israel, meanwhile, has refused to apologise and pay compensation to the families of the slain Turks, which are Turkey's primary conditions to rebuilding ties.
The apology demand was the main issue of discussion when Turkish and Israeli officials met in Geneva in December in a bid to overcome the crisis, Ozdem Sanberk, who attended the meeting as the Turkish member of the UN commission, said at the time.
The same point of contention has continued to block reconciliation efforts since then, another Turkish diplomat said.
Observers see little chance of any reconciliation step in the short run as Turkey heads to general elections on June 12 and the ruling Justice and Development Party, seeking a third straight term in power, has heightened nationalist rhetoric.
Moreover, tensions could shoot up again as a new aid flotilla is getting ready to depart for Gaza in June in another attempt to break the blockade.
At least "a dozen boats carrying supplies and passengers from several European ports, including Marseille, will sail to Gaza in the third week of June," said Quassima Ibn Salah from the Turkish Islamist charity IHH, which spearheaded last year's bid.
The Mavi Marmara will take part in the new venture as well, but it is unclear whether it would depart from Turkey, she added.
The Greek and Swedish branches of the Ship to Gaza association, and various organisations from Italy, Malaysia, Spain and Switzerland will join the new fleet dubbed "Freedom Flotilla II."
Israel has already asked Turkey and the European Union to stop the convoy.
Ankara sees Israel's ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as the man responsible for the failure of the reconciliation talks in Geneva.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in January that Israel should "get rid of" Lieberman.
Last week, a Turkish prosecutor asked Israel to supply the identities of both the soldiers who stormed the Mavi Marmara and of the political and military leaders involved in the operation, according to media reports.
The request was part of an ongoing Turkish probe for premeditated murder, which has already implicated Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Lieberman.
On Monday Israeli naval forces fired warning shots at a Malaysian aid ship as it approached the Gaza Strip, forcing the vessel to retreat to Egypt, organisers and the Israeli military said.