Turkey raised tensions several notches in the Middle East on Friday when it expelled Israel’s ambassador. The official reason Turkish authorities provided for downgrading diplomatic relations between the two Middle Eastern countries to second-secretary status was that Israel refuses to apologise for the killing of ten Turkish citizens by Israeli naval commandos during the Gaza flotilla raid in May, 2010.
The trigger for the diplomatic crisis was the United Nations (UN) report on the flotilla raid. Called the “Palmer Report” after the former prime minister of New Zealand who headed the commission investigating the incident, the 105-page document was released September 2 after it had been leaked to the New York Times.
The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of Turkey’s ruling Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), reacted angrily to the Israel-friendly report. Besides expelling Israel’s ambassador on Friday, Turkey also cut all military ties with the Jewish state. But what garnered the most attention was the Turkish government’s announcement that it will challenge Israeli warships in the eastern Mediterranean, indicating its naval warships may escort the next flotilla to Gaza, thus risking military conflict with Israel.
“Turkey would take every precaution it deems necessary for the safety of maritime navigation in the eastern Mediterranean,” stated Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, on Friday. Another Turkish government stated Israel’s “bullying practices” regarding civilian ships will be curtailed by Turkey’s “more aggressive strategy.”
It was also announced that Erdogan would visit Gaza in September, which will heighten tensions even further.
Briefly, the report’s chief point contradicts the main accusation, made for years by anti-Israeli leftists and Islamic countries, that the blockade is illegal. It isn’t. It is in keeping with international law, as Israel has always maintained. Likewise, debunking another anti-Israeli accusation, the report relates that the blockade also has “little impact on the supply of civilian goods” since Gaza ports cannot serve large ships.
“Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza,” the report states. “The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea…”
Palmer also concluded the activists on the flotilla “acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade,” while “serious questions” exist about the flotilla organisers’ “conduct, true nature and objectives.” For example, the I.H.H. Humanitarian and Relief Foundation, the flotilla’s primary organizer, is part of Milli Gorus, an Islamist organization in Turkey. The Turkish government, the report stated, also “could have done more” to prevent the tragedy.
Despite the fact Israel was reprimanded for using “excessive and unreasonable” force, it was still deemed reasonable. In all, the report represents a stinging rebuke for Turkey and anti-Israeli activists, especially since the UN is not considered an Israeli-friendly organization.
Israel has always said it would not apologise for the deaths but would express regret over the tragedy, which Israel’s president had already done months ago and which the report said Israel should do. An offer of compensation to the victims’ families was also made. Offering an apology, however, would constitute an admission its military had done something wrong, which is something Israel will not do. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayu believes making an apology would be demoralising for Israelis. To its shame, the Obama administration has been urging the Israeli government to cave in and do just that.
But even if Israel does apologise, it most likely would not be enough to satisfy the Turkish government. Turkey has also demanded that Israel end the Gaza blockade, and more demands are sure to follow. In its own report on the 2010 flotilla deaths, the Turkish investigators called the Israeli actions “piracy” and now intend to take the matter of the blockade to the International Criminal Court. In the meantime, Turkish authorities have begun harassing Israeli travellers at the country’s airports.
Probably the main reason for Turkey’s willingness to confront Israel militarily is ideological. Erdogan is known for his Islamist background, for which he once went to prison. He also wrote an anti-Semitic play and was “mentored,” as was Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul, by Necmettin Erbakan, a Milli Gorus leader who died about a year ago. In one of his last interviews, Erbakan told a German newspaper that Israel’s arrogance could only be broken by the appearance of a powerful Turkey.
“He (Erdogan) hates us,” said Gabby Levy, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, who was in Israel when the expulsion order came down. “He hates us religiously and his hatred is spreading.”
Another reason is that Turkey is now an economically powerful country with 70 million people that wants to re-establish itself as the region’s leader, like it once was during the Ottoman Empire days. Under the AKP, which took power in 2002 and won its third election last June with 50 percent of the vote, Turkey is reaching “unprecedented heights of economic prosperity.” Turkey is now economically better off than some European Union countries, like Spain and Greece, and possesses a strong, national confidence.
“Turkey’s economy grew at a rate of nine 9% last year, second only to China’s among the Group of 20,” writes M.K. Bhadrakumar in Asia Times. “The economy is already the world’s 17th largest and growing…”
To re-establish itself as regional leader and pursue its “expansive neo-Ottoman foreign policy,” Turkey must impress the Arab countries, which it once ruled. So Friday’s expelling of the Israeli ambassador and cutting its long-standing ties with Israel can also be viewed as a move on Turkey’s part to strengthen its influence among the Arab states who want to see an Islamic country stand up to their enemy. Arab countries fared poorly in four wars with Israel and have not challenged the Jewish state militarily in almost 40 years, considering the prospect too dangerous. What they have never been able to do, and now don’t even dare, they hope a militarily stronger and more capable Turkey can.
Besides gaining influence in Arab countries, Turkey’s standing up to Israel also represents a challenge aimed at Iran, Turkey’s rival in its claim to regional leadership. Turkey and Iran have recently found themselves on opposite sides on several issues. Turkey, for example, wants Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad to resign, while Iran supports his staying in power and is actively assisting him. No agreement was also reached when Turkey tried to mediate the international crisis regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Turkey and Iran are also rivals in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
But to gain real influence in the Arab and Islamic world one has to get involved in the Palestinian issue. Iran has a lead here, having supported Hamas and Hezbollah in the fight against Israel. The fact Iran had already sent aid ships to Gaza may also be part of the reason why Turkey intends to do likewise. But under the AKP, Turkey’s “firm stand supportive of the Palestinian cause” was also taken out of conviction.
“Indeed, the first fracture appeared in the architecture of Turkey-Israel ties when Erdogan snubbed Peres in front of television cameras at the Davos forum some two years ago during a debate on the Palestine problem,” writes Bhadrakumar.
Turkey has also threatened to take action if Cyprus starts to explore for natural gas in its territorial waters. Turkey opposes the move, saying the gas also belongs to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, and Greek Cypriots have no right to exploit it. Turkey, however, left unsaid what form its intervention would take. Since its long-standing ties with Turkey deteriorated, Israel has pursued closer relations with both Greece and Cyprus and would most likely act on Cyprus’ behalf if push came to shove with Turkey.
By sending warships to Gaza, Turkey is seeking confrontation with Israel in a very extreme manner. Since Israel and Turkey have no contiguous land border, however, any conflict between the two countries would most likely involve air and naval clashes, which Israel’s well-tested armed forces would win. But what would be lost here is Turkey, whose Islamist AKP is forcing it to renounce its long-time partnership with the West and become its adversary instead.