Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu talks about the downgrade… (Reuters )
Reporting from Jerusalem — Israel's souring relations with onetime ally Turkey took a turn for the worse Friday as Turkey announced it would formally expel Israel's ambassador and suspend military agreements.
The downgrade in diplomatic ties came after Israel refused to publicly apologize for the May 2010 killing of nine Turkish activists aboard a pro-Palestinian flotilla that was trying to break through Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. After the incident, Turkey recalled its own ambassador.
The new tensions came despite frantic American efforts over the last few months to mediate a reconciliation between the two key regional U.S. allies. Under a proposed compromise, Israel would have apologized and paid compensation to the victims' families, while Turkey would have agreed to restore ties and not pursue lawsuits against Israel over the incident.
But last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled that he would not apologize. Hardliners in his coalition said an apology would be viewed as a sign of weakness.
Israeli officials also complained that Turkey was seeking additional concessions.
"Turkey was demanding more than just an apology,'' said one Israeli government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Among other things, he said, Turkey wanted Israel to halt its naval blockade of Gaza. "An apology would not have been enough."
Critics said both governments appear more concerned about national pride and looking tough in the eyes of their citizens than in resolving the matter diplomatically. On Thursday, Turkish officials issued a 24-hour ultimatum for Israel to apologize. Israel, meanwhile, has stubbornly refused to express regret publicly, though it has offered privately to pay compensation.
Though the friendship between Turkey and Israel has been troubled for more than two years, Turkey is now threatening to take hostilities to a new level. Officials have hinted that they might impose economic sanctions, file legal actions against Israel in international courts and assist Palestinians in their upcoming U.N. bid for statehood recognition.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also threatened to make an official visit to Hamas-controlled Gaza, affording legitimacy to an enclave that Israel has been working to isolate.
Turkey's announcement Friday was pegged to the pending release of a U.N. commission's probe into the flotilla incident. The commission, led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, concluded that Israel's Gaza blockade was a legitimate means to prevent weapons from entering the territory, but that its military used excessive force in seizing control of the Mavi Marmara, resulting in nine deaths.
Israeli officials portrayed the findings as a vindication of their blockade, while Turkey -- which views the blockade as illegal -- complained that it was not critical enough of Israel. Formal release of the report has been delayed for months in the hopes that a reconciliation agreement could be reached. The report is expected to be published later Friday.
Tensions with Turkey come as Israel faces growing isolation in the region. Last week, Egypt's military-led interim government briefly threatened to recall its ambassador to Israel after three Egyptian soldiers were killed during an Israeli cross-border incursion. In that case, Israel quickly apologized.