Israel and Turkey row delays UN flotilla report

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Israeli and Turkish officials are working feverishly behind the scenes to agree on a reconciliation document which would draw a line under Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla last May, which left nine Turkish activists dead and chilled relations with its closest ally in the region.

The diplomatic activity in Washington has been all the more urgent to pre-empt a much-delayed United Nations report on the flotilla incident, which had been scheduled to come out today. Diplomatic sources now say it will be held back until the two governments are able to reach an understanding, an indication that the gulf between them is proving difficult to bridge.

The UN's findings, which some fear could ratchet up tensions between Israel and Turkey, are expected to be critical of both countries, while singling out Israel for using excessive force against pro-Palestinian activists trying to run the blockade.

Israel provoked international outrage when its commandos stormed the Mavi Mamara, the lead ship in a flotilla trying to deliver aid to Gaza. The bungled raid forced Israel to ease, but not end, its four-year siege of Gaza, aimed at weakening Islamist group Hamas.

Turkey demanded an apology and compensation, demands that Israel initially refused to meet, provoking a diplomatic storm. Turkey recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and warned that relations "would never be the same".

Israel has reportedly now agreed to a payout but is resisting calls to apologise, proposing instead to express regret. "Diplomats are working like linguists to find a word that will sound like an apology in Turkish, but won't sound like an apology in Hebrew," Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper said this week.

An indicator of how difficult that might be came yesterday from Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. "We are all for ending the friction with Turkey but we are not willing to accept dictates," he said. "An apology is not a compromise, it is a humiliation."

Turkey's friendship is critical to Israel, not least because the Jewish State is surrounded by countries largely hostile to it. Ankara also holds influence over groups such as Hamas, the Islamist overlords in Gaza, and analysts say it could play a role in moderating the militant group. "A way needs to be found to reconcile with [Turkey]," Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, said. "We have enough adversaries in the Middle East – we don't need to turn Turkey into one."

The diplomatic horse-trading comes as a lone French boat stole out of a Greek port aiming to run Israel's blockade. It had been part of a 10-ship flotilla bound for Gaza but the convoy was left in disarray after Greece banned the boats from leaving port after Israeli pressure.

As well as monitoring the boat's progress, Israel is also bolstering security at its airport as more than 600 pro-Palestinian campaigners declared their intention to fly to Israel on Friday to show solidarity with the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. They plan to be open with Israeli immigration officials about their eventual destination, but insist they have no plans to disrupt the peace.

Although visitors to Israel are allowed to go to the West Bank, and thousands flock every year to Bethlehem, Israeli officials have, nevertheless, referred to the protesters as "hooligans" and warned that the passengers would try to create disturbances at the airport.

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