ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and cut military ties on Friday over Israel’s refusal to apologize for last year’s deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, further straining a relationship that had been a cornerstone of regional stability.
The dramatic move came hours before the release of a U.N. report that called the Israeli raid that killed nine pro-Palestinian activists “excessive and unreasonable.” The U.N. panel also blamed Turkey and flotilla organizers for contributing to the deaths.
The rupture between the Jewish state and what was once its most important Muslim ally raised concerns Egypt and Jordan might follow, increasing Israel’s isolation in the region.
“If this ends with Turkey, it will be a miracle,” said Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey. “There is a lot of internal pressure in Egypt, and Turkey could use its clout in the Arab and Muslim world to pressure other nations to follow suit.”
Turkey had made an Israeli apology a condition of improved diplomatic ties. But Israel insisted its forces acted in self defense and said there would be no apology. Israeli officials pointed out that the U.N. report does not demand an apology, recommending instead that Israel express regret and pay reparations.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his government was downgrading diplomatic ties with Israel to the level of second secretary and that the ambassador and other high-level diplomats would leave the country by Wednesday.
He said all military agreements signed between the former allies were being suspended, and that Turkey would back court actions against Israel by flotilla victims’ families and take steps to ensure “free navigation” in the eastern Mediterranean.
“The time has come for Israel to pay for its stance that sees it above international laws and disregard human conscience,” Davutoglu said. “The first and foremost result is that Israel is going to be devoid of Turkey’s friendship.”
The 105-page U.N. report said Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza was legally imposed “as a legitimate security measure” to prevent weapons smuggling, but added that the killing of eight Turkish activists and a Turkish-American was “unacceptable.”
“The events of May 31, 2010, should never have taken place as they did and strenuous efforts should be made to prevent the occurrence of such incidents in the future,” the report said.
The panel criticized Israel for failing to give “clear prior warning” that the vessels were to be boarded and failing to use “nonviolent options.”
But the panel also found the flotilla “acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade.”
In a statement, Israel said it accepted the report’s conclusions, but “does not concur with the panel’s characterization of Israel’s decision to board the vessels in the manner it did as ‘excessive and unreasonable.’ ”