The magnitude of the Turkish-Israeli rift stands in marked contrast to their history
Turkey apparently couldn’t wait to downgrade relations with Israel, expelling Israel’s ambassador and suspending all military agreements even before the official UN report on last year’s raid on Gaza-bound flotilla was formally announced. But so angered has Turkey been over the crisis, which saw nine Turkish nationals killed on May 31 2010 on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship of the six-vessel convoy, after Israeli special forces boarded it in international waters, that it is willing to risk relations even further with Israel, one of its closest allies.
Turkey was right all along. The inquiry, led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer said Israel’s decision to board the humanitarian-bound vessels with such substantial force at a great distance from the blockade zone and with no final warning immediately prior to the boarding was “excessive and unreasonable.” It said forensic evidence showed most of those killed were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range. While the report added that the flotilla “acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade” and the Israeli “faced significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers,” it also said that no satisfactory explanation was provided by Israel for any of the nine deaths.
Despite this premeditated attack, Israel never apologized, obviously for fear that it would be seen as an admission of guilt. It simply regretted the loss of life, without compensating the families of the victims.
Thus the reaction by Turkey, which might also have been extra miffed by the report’s declaration that Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip was legal, a precaution against arms reaching Hamas and other Palestinian activists by sea. Turkey says the blockade is unlawful and a collective punishment of the people of Gaza.
The magnitude of the Turkish-Israeli rift stands in marked contrast to their history. Back in 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim majority country to recognize Israel. Since then, Israel has been a major supplier of arms to Turkey and both have a flourishing free trade agreement, again unprecedented. But ties have been going steadily downhill since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002. Relations strained badly over the 2008-2009 Israeli apocalypse of Gaza, then broke wide open after the Gaza flotilla raid.
Turkey might be intent on lessening ties with Israel in line with the popular sentiments in the Arab and Islamic world. Indeed, Erdogan’s stand on the Palestinian issue has held Turkey in good stead among Arabs. This is not just the government speaking. In 2010, 20 percent of Turks favored closer ties with other Muslim countries instead of with the EU — which Turkey hopes to join — a doubling in just one year.
Meanwhile, as Turkey inches closer to the Islamic world, its decision increases the isolation of Israel which faces turmoil in ties with another regional ally, Egypt, where long-time leader Hosni Mubarak was deposed earlier this year and where there have been growing calls to revoke the three-decade-old Egypt-Israel peace agreement. Last month, Egypt briefly threatened to withdraw its ambassador from Israel after a shooting in the Sinai left five Egyptian soldiers dead.
Ankara has left open chances for a change of heart either by the current Israeli coalition or a future government. But from the region’s perspective, it would be much better and more logical if Turkey, a key regional power with a large economy and the second largest military force in NATO, were to side more with the Islamic world than the Jewish state.