Turkey announced the expulsion of Israel's ambassador yesterday and the freezing of military relations in response to the Netanyahu government's refusal to apologise for the lethal raid it authorised on a Gaza-bound flotilla 15 months ago.
The move, which threatened the most serious downgrading of official relations between the two countries for 30 years, came before the formal publication of a UN report on the raid which killed nine Turks aboard the flotilla's lead ship, the Mavi Marmara.
The report, from a team headed by former New Zealand premier Sir Geoffrey Palmer, criticises Israel's use of firepower during the raid as "excessive and unreasonable" but says the naval blockade it was enforcing was legal and justified – a conclusion Turkey disputes.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's Foreign minister, told reporters that the Israeli ambassador and other diplomats would be gone by Wednesday. He said military agreements between the two countries would be suspended and that other possible sanctions could include naval restrictions on Israel in the eastern Mediterranean and Turkish state backing for court actions against Israel by the families of victims of the raid.
The Foreign minister added: "The time has come for Israel to pay for its stance that sees it above international laws and disregards human conscience. The first and foremost result is that Israel is going to be devoid of Turkey's friendship."
While Turkey has insisted a full apology is a condition of restoring relations, Israel is arguing that the report seeks only reparations and an expression of "regret" for the deaths of the Mavi Marmara passengers – recommendations the Netanyahu government has indicated it would be prepared to meet.
Asked why the report did not demand the apology Turkey has consistently sought, the country's president, Abdullah Gul, said: "To be frank, the report is null and void for us." Mr Davutoglu indicated Turkey would be seeking a re-examination of the blockade's legality by the UN and the International Court of Justice.
The US, which is concerned about the consequences of a breakdown in relations, has reportedly pressed Israel to apologise. But Israel last night repeated that it would not do so. Although there was no ministerial comment on the Turkish move, a senior diplomatic official said: "As advised in the report, Israel once again expresses its regret over the loss of life, but will not apologise for its soldiers taking action to defend their lives. Like any other state, Israel has the right to defend its civilians and soldiers."
The official described the Palmer Report as "professional, serious and comprehensive". He insisted that Israel "cherishes the significant ties... between the Turkish and Jewish peoples". That was why, he added, Israel had made "numerous attempts" to settle the dispute.
Alon Liel, a former diplomat and an advocate of good Israeli-Turkish relations, said the current freeze could jeopardise more than $2bn a year in mutual trade. He added that military ties had already loosened since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP government, but that the move could put a question mark over Israel's export of drones to the Turkish military.
The report says participants in the flotilla "acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade," which was militarily justified because of the risk of weapons being imported to Gaza. It notes the danger the Israeli soldiers faced but adds that no satisfactory explanation has been provided for any of the deaths.