Israeli wildfire breaks the ice with Turkey

AFP Photo / Jack Guez
Ankara’s offer to help Israel battle a massive wildfire that killed 42 people has opened the way for talks between the two countries after relations soured in May following the flotilla incident.

Israeli and Turkish diplomats met in Geneva on Monday in the hope of drafting an agreement that would normalize ties between the two countries.

In May, Israel and Turkey suffered a major disruption in their relations when a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, was intercepted as its crew attempted to breach an Israeli blockade and deliver humanitarian goods to the Gaza Strip. A clash between the members of the Turkish ship and the Israeli commandoes broke out in international waters, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turks.

In the course of the diplomatic meltdown, Ankara withdrew its ambassador to Israel, cancelled all cooperation with the Israeli military and essentially declared the State of Israel persona non grata.

Meanwhile, a policy paper released in October by Turkey's National Security Council called Israel “the central threat to Turkey.”

"The region's instability stems from Israeli actions and policy, which could lead to an arms race in the Middle East," the policy paper, known as The Red Book, reportedly said.

Opportunity in the face of tragedy

A massive wildfire in Israel, however, which claimed the lives of 42 Israelis and forced the evacuation of 15,000 residents, opened up a window for dialogue between Ankara and Jerusalem after Turkey sent two firefighting aircraft to help extinguish the blaze.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rang his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan on Friday to thank Ankara for helping to quell the fire.

"I told Erdogan that we appreciate the major efforts during this time and I am sure that this will be a gateway to improving relations between the two countries," Netanyahu said.

The Turkish prime minister responded, "In the face of this disaster it was a humanitarian and Islamic duty for us to help," adding that Turkey would be "ready to make any form of help for the injured."

The conversation was the first between the two leaders since Netanyahu took office in March 2009. Yet the two countries still have some hurdles to clear before relations are back to normal.

On Monday, Erdogan reiterated his country's position regarding the possibility of normalizing ties with Israel, saying the two nations would settle their differences but only after Israel apologized and paid compensation.

Ankara wants Israel to pay compensation to the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara in exchange for the Turkish ambassador being returned to Tel Aviv and Turkey approving the appointment of a new Israeli ambassador to Ankara. The current ambassador to Turkey, Gabi Levy, is expected to leave his post next summer.

For its part, Israel is interested in normalizing relations with Turkey, which has long been one of Jerusalem’s most reliable allies in the region.

Teen suspect in blaze detained

Meanwhile, a 14-year-old boy from Carmel was arrested Monday as the main suspect in the largest and most devastating fire in Israel’s history. The four-day inferno left 42 people dead,  destroyed thousands of acres of forest and agricultural land and forced Israel to request international assistance.

According to the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, Russia sent a Be-200 amphibious aircraft and an Il-76 cargo plane equipped with water-dumping devices to Israel to help fight the fires near Haifa, Israel’s third largest city.

Israeli authorities said the teen suspect admitted under questioning that he had been smoking a tobacco water pipe, or hookah, and tossed aside a hot coal that is believed to have ignited the blaze.

Reportedly unable to extinguish the flames, the boy fled the scene and returned to school without notifying anybody, Israeli media reported.

According to ClimateSignals, a website that charts global warming, this winter has been one of the hottest and driest on record for Israel.

Robert Bridge, RT