Turkey closes airspace to Israeli flights, says Erdogan

Turkey closed its airspace to Israeli military flights, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed Monday, underscoring tensions in the wake of the Gaza flotilla raid. The ban reportedly will not affect commercial planes.

Chris Wattie/Reuters
Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (l.), and Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, attend the first plenary session of the G20 summit in Toronto on Sunday.

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Turkey blocked an Israeli military flight from using its airspace after Israel’s deadly raid on a boat bringing aid to the Gaza Strip, and may prevent further military planes from flying through Turkish airspace.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday at the G20 summit in Toronto that Turkey had closed its airspace to Israeli flights after the May 31 raid killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American. The BBC and others report it as a specific ban on Israeli military flights; CNN is alone in reporting it as a general ban on Israeli flights.

While it is also not clear if the move was a one-time incident or a change in policy, it underscores the increased tension between Turkey and Israel in the wake of the flotilla killings.

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

The Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported Sunday that Turkey refused to allow an Israeli air force cargo plane carrying military members on a tour of Holocaust memorial sites in Poland to fly through its airspace, according to English-language Israeli news site Ynet. Israeli military officials reportedly did not publicize the event so as to avoid deepening the rift that has opened between the two former allies.

Agence France-Presse reports that the incident occurred “immediately after” the May 31 raid, and it was not clear if the ban would extend to other military flights. AFP reports that it will not affect civilian flights.

The Associated Press quotes a Turkish official as saying that each request for a military overflight will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The AP also cites a Turkish government official saying that the ban is for Israeli military flights and that commercial flights are not affected.

Israel’s raid on the aid ship, part of a flotilla sponsored by a Turkish group to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, brought widespread condemnation. Israel said its soldiers were attacked by activists on the ship and fatally shot nine in self-defense. Ties between the two countries, already strained by Israel’s offensive in Gaza that ended in January 2009, grew worse. Turkey recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, halted joint military exercises, and demanded an apology. The airspace revelation reveals another way that Ankara is retaliating.

In an opinion article published by Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News, New York University professor Alon Ben-Meir argues that Turkey’s actions after the flotilla killings are part of a pattern of behavior that is putting Turkey’s status as an impartial mediator in the region in danger.

One factor that has raised concerns about Turkey's role as a mediator is a view that it is trading its impartiality for good favor with its Eastern neighbors. The "zero problems with neighbors" strategy heralded by Foreign Minister Davutoğlu sent a message to the world that Turkey was interested in becoming an honest broker and ally to all parties in the region. […]

Yet since the 2008 Israeli incursion into Gaza, the Erdoğan government has consistently used public occasions to rabble rouse and condemn Israeli policies without making much effort to empathize with its Jewish ally or condemn on equal grounds its Arab and Muslim neighbors.

A separate opinion article in Hurriyet argues that Turkey’s diplomatic war against Israel after the flotilla attack has jeopardized its relationship with the US, showing that Turkish politicians have misread Washington.

The diplomatic relations also took a heavy hit between Ankara and Jerusalem, when Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Israel in very early days of the crisis. Since then, with almost no or very little behind the scene communication, Turkey has chosen to shout louder, and angrier at the Israelis. And this is when the US administration began to draw a line with the Turkish government.

Did the AKP sincerely believe that it could push Washington to take a position against Israel, dump it if necessary and support the Turkish position all the way?

The Christian Science Monitor reported in a recent briefing that Turkey’s actions since the raid have “prompted many to question whether it is abandoning efforts to establish itself as a mediator between Israel and its Muslim neighbors, as well as turning away – to some degree – from Europe.” Its strong alliance with Israel, built over the past 15 years, is becoming weaker as Turkey increasingly reaches out to its neighbors in the Middle East, reports the Monitor.

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


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