Will Gaza flotilla raid mark end of Turkey-Israel relations?

Turkey called for an international investigation into the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla sent to break the aid blockade. At security meeting in Istanbul today, Turkey positioned itself as a leader in crafting a regional response. Turkey-Israel relations are fraying rapidly.

REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against Israel in Ankara, Turkey on June 6, 2010. Turkey has called for an international investigation into Israel's raid on a relief flotilla, bound for the Gaza Strip last week.

After decades of close Turkey-Israel ties, Turkish officials today asserted that friendship can continue under only one condition: If Israel conforms with international law and human rights standards. A close, 15-year relationship between the two countries appears on the brink of collapse.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said normal ties could not be restored unless Israel accepts an international investigation into the fatal raid on the Gaza aid flotilla, something it rejected last week.

Leading a summit on Eurasian security that opened Monday in Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to take the lead in orchestrating a regional response to Israel’s raid on the “Freedom Flotilla” that tried to break the Gaza blockade. Nine Turkish citizens, one of whom had dual US citizenship, were killed in the raid, sparking widespread Turkish fury.

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

“If there is any so-called hate, that is the hate of the Israeli government. If there is any form of terror in the Mediterranean, this was in the state-terror organized by Israel,” Mr. Erdogan said at a joint press conference with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “There have been more than 100 resolutions in the [United Nations] regarding Israel, and almost none of them have been implemented by Israel…. We need to follow and pursue these resolutions to [fruition], and we are very pleased that our brother Syria is supporting us."

“There can be no open-air prisons for people. This is a crime against humanity, and there is no way this can be associated with universal values or humanitarian values,” added Erdogan. “As long as there is bloodshed and tears shed in Gaza, we cannot remain silent.”

Why Turkey is pushing the Gaza issue

Israel sees Turkey's intense pressure as a sudden, opportunistic shift designed to boost its regional standing by capitalizing on widespread Muslim anger over Israel's treatment of Palestinians, particularly in Gaza.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman this week drew a comparison to Israeli-Iranian ties, which were close in the 1970s but collapsed following the Iranian revolution. Criticism of Israel has become a vehicle for Turkey to gain regional prominence, he said.

"We were good friends for a decade, and now they are changing their policy. It's not our fault. This flotilla is just an excuse; it could be something else, '' says Tal Nahum, a spokesman for Mr. Lieberman's political party Yisrael Beitenu. "Israel is paying the price of the new Turkish policy to receive more popularity in the Muslim world.''

But Turkish leaders, bolstered by other Muslim leaders in Istanbul for the security conference, say their concern over Palestinians goes back decades. As they become convinced that the US either will not – or cannot – substantively change Israeli policies, Turkey appears to be trying to back Israel into a corner where it will be forced to change.

“Turkey is today supporting Gaza, and less than a century ago, Turkey opposed giving Palestine to the Israelis,” said Mr. Assad. “So we have had one objective through history. We have now a kind of common cause, through the blood of your martyrs and our martyrs. We have embraced the same causes, and made the same sacrifices.”

Turkey has demanded a formal apology from Israel for clashes with club- and knife-wielding activists that left nine dead when naval commandos boarded the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, the flagship of flotilla. Erdogan also called for lifting the three-year blockade on all but essential goods on Gaza – a situation for the 1.5 million Palestinians in the coastal strip that Washington has called “unsustainable” – and found a ready audience.

'They dropped us after a 15-year love affair'

After years of brisk commerce between Israel and Turkey – a key Muslim friend of the Jewish state – Turkey's shift to becoming a leading critic of Israeli policy has left many in Israel surprised and embittered.

"It's very painful," says Alon Liel, a former Israeli charge d'affaires in Istanbul. "There is huge frustration that they kind of dropped us after a love affair of 15 years. The Israeli public feels betrayed.''

At the end of this past week, some 2,000 Israeli demonstrators gathered outside the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv, setting off smoke bombs and holding up signs of Erdogan alongside Osama Bin Laden and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. A memorial to Turkish soldiers was vandalized twice, and a right-wing group has demanded a leading Israeli coffee maker rename its Turkish coffee.

Meanwhile, amid mass anti-Israel demonstrations by protesters in Turkey, Israel's anti-terrorism bureau warned to tourists against visiting there. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor canceled a trip to Turkey at the recommendation of the Shin Bet security service, reported.

What's at stake

The Turkey-Israel alliance, which began to flower in the late 1990s, had symbolic, strategic, and economic significance to the Jewish state. Israel could hold up its friendship with Turkey as proof that the conflict with Arab neighbors was not about religion. Ties between the defense establishments were so close that the Israeli air force trained in the skies over Turkey and their navies held joint exercises.

But those ties began to fray after the Gaza war in 2009, which destroyed Turkish-mediated peace talks between Israel and Syria just as Turkish officials say they were about to clinch a deal. Then earlier this year, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon humiliated Turkey's ambassador in an on-camera meeting. Pictures of Israeli commandos rappelling onto a Turkish ship were a stark contrast.

Defense contracts for Israeli equipment that once topped $750 million have slowed, though as late as last week Turkey said a $180 million deal for Israeli drones would be unaffected by the diplomatic crisis. Israeli tourism to Turkey dropped by half in 2009 from the previous year to 250,000 visitors, and trade slid to $2.5 billion from $3.5 billion, says Alon Liel, a former Israeli charge d'affaires in Istanbul.

"There's almost nothing left,'' says Mr. Liel.

Israelis have ignored the recent signs a shift in Turkish foreign policy, one that is more oriented toward positioning itself as an international proponent of Muslim interests, says Anat Lapidoth-Frilla, an expert on Israeli-Turkish ties at Hebrew University.

"Some still believe it’s a temporary,'' she said, but "we are going to continue a very stormy relationship in the near period.''


IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

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