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Flotilla raid could be fatal blow to Turkey-Israel friendship

Gaza aid flotilla activists gesture as they arrive at Ben Gurion Airport before flying back to Turkey on June 2, 2010 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Israel's good relations with Turkey look to become another casualty of Monday's deadly boarding of a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza. The only question, analysts say, is whether the rift will lead to a more radically polarized region, or force Israel to retreat from its blockade of Gaza.

"The steps that [Israel]will undertake in the coming days will be determining its position in the region," was the ominous warning issued Wednesday by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's Prime Minister and the leader of its Islamic Justice and Development Party.

Mr. Erdogan told U.S. President Barack Obama in a telephone conversation that Israel was in "danger of losing its sole friend in the region."

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Earlier this week, in reaction to Israel's military boarding of a Turkish-flagged passenger ship that resulted in nine dead, four of them Turkish, Ankara withdrew its ambassador from Israel, scrapped war games planned between the countries and demanded an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council at which Turkey's Foreign Minister railed against Israel's behaviour.

The good news from Mr. Erdogan's warning, some would say, is that at least he still refers to Israel as a "friend."

Perhaps not for much longer.

"[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin]Netanyahu has succeeded in doing the impossible," said Paul Heinbecker, a retired senior Canadian diplomat who has been in Istanbul during this week's crisis. "He has united Turkey's Islamists and secularists in common contempt for Israel. There is a widespread consensus among the people that Israel, and its American benefactor, mustn't be allowed to get away with this assault."

On Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, thousands of Turks crowded Istanbul's central square awaiting the arrival of hundreds of activists released by Israel. (Following a request from Turkey, the Netanyahu government decided not to prosecute any of the activists and to free all of them immediately.) Earlier in the day, Turkey's parliament called on Mr. Erdogan's government to conduct a review of the country's relations with Israel. Attempts to invoke sanctions against Israel and boycott Israeli products were headed off by lawmakers from the governing party, who said they didn't want to inflame the situation further.

"It's time calm replaces anger," said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutogu, who added that if Israel lifts the blockade of Gaza, relations between Turkey and Israel could return to normal. Mr. Davutogu made the remarks shortly after returning from a visit to the United States, where he presented Turkey's case against Israel to the UN Security Council.

On Tuesday night, in his weekly report to his party, Mr. Erdogan wasn't sounding so moderate.

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At times shaking with rage, the Prime Minister called Israel "a festering boil in the Middle East," and said that the "bloody massacre" of activists aboard a Turkish ship was a turning point in the two countries' long-standing alliance.

"Nothing will be the same again," he said.

"At the moment, the street and the government seem to be united in their antipathy for Israel," said Ofra Bengio, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University and author of The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders.

For its part, Israel this week ordered the families of its diplomats based in Turkey to return home immediately, and it warned Israeli tourists to stay away from Turkey. The Turkish government, meanwhile, announced it had increased security for the country's 23,000-strong Jewish community out of concern for its safety.

Just 18 months ago, it was a very different story.

Turkey and Israel were closer than ever. Their militaries were co-operating under a 1996 pact, holding joint exercises, sharing intelligence and buying and selling military hardware. Politically, Turkey was brokering talks between Israel and its old enemy, Syria, after a request by Israel's then-prime-minister, Ehud Olmert.

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Two ethnically distinct states in a region dominated by Arabs, Turkey and Israel are perhaps natural allies. In 1949, Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel.

In 1988, Turkey was also the first country to recognize the Palestinian "state" declared at a PLO meeting in Algiers. More recently, Turkey hosted Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's Damascus-based leader, after Hamas won a majority of seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006.

For many years Israel and Turkey had a good, productive relationship, Israeli officials say. Trade amounted to more than $4-billion a year, and tourism flourished. Turkey was the second most popular destination, after the United States, of Israelis travelling outside their country. Israelis liked the Turkish people, the beaches, the casinos, and the country's proximity to Israel.

Israel's 22-day offensive against Hamas in Gaza 18 months ago changed that. A friend of the Hamas government, Turkey was not only shocked by the killing of 1,300 people in Gaza, it was offended at the timing of the assault, just days after Mr. Erdogan had hosted the Israeli prime minister.

If that conflict introduced a wedge between Israel and Turkey, this week's flotilla assault, dubbed Operation Sea Breeze by the Israel Defence Forces, drove it home.

"It was our misfortune to play into the hands of militants," Prof. Bengio said.

As a result, Turkey is now seen as a champion of the Palestinian cause. Its red flag, with the crescent moon and star, is flying in every Palestinian community. "It looks like the return of the Ottoman Empire," one man said.

"There's no doubt that Erdogan is riding high in the eyes of the public," Prof. Bengio said. "If there's going to be reconciliation between our countries, it will have to take place behind the scenes. The street is just too volatile."

That's the optimistic view here.

Mossad director Meir Dagan has what he considers is a more realistic view. In testimony Tuesday to a Knesset committee he said that in today's Middle East "the pragmatic camp is becoming weaker, and the radical side is gaining a certain type of power."

To that end, he said, Turkey is cultivating an anti-Israel coalition with Syria and Iran. As well, Prime Minister Erdogan has "a dream of returning Turkey's dominance through going down the Islamic hall. He believes that through Hamas and the Palestinians, additional doors will be opened for him in the Arab street."

As a result of this week's flotilla crisis, there is even talk in Istanbul of the Turkish navy escorting another humanitarian convoy to Gaza, says Paul Heinbecker.

"We're not talking about a tiny force," he said. "Turkey has NATO's second largest military."

"Presumably," Mr. Heinbecker said, "cooler heads are trying to prevail in Washington and they'll get Israel to make some policy changes."

"I think it'll take an end to the blockade of Gaza," he said, "as well as a NATO or some other inspection force," if Turkey is to be satisfied.

"But if Israel continues in a bloody-minded way, there'll be trouble."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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