Turkey’s Erdogan Escalates Tensions with Israel

September 7, 2011 - 3:17 PM

Erdogan and Ahmadinejad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomes Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Tehran in October 2009. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel Tuesday of acting like a spoiled child, but it is the Turkish government whose show of pique was sparked by the fact that a U.N. inquiry did not back its version of the infamous Mediterranean flotilla incident.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was working hard to “defuse” the crisis between “our ally Turkey and our ally Israel.”

“We still believe that getting back to a good partnership between them is in each of their interests, and we will continue to work for that goal with both of them,” she told a press briefing. “But we are concerned about the state of the relationship today.”

While Israeli leaders continue to express the hope that rift with Turkey will be healed, Erdogan escalated the row, saying Ankara was freezing not just diplomatic but also commercial, military and defense industry ties with Israel. He promised – without elaborating – that the moves would be followed by additional sanctions.

He also declared that Turkish warships would in the future be more visible in eastern Mediterranean waters, where the Israeli navy is deployed. Further, Erdogan is considering paying what would be a provocative visit to the Gaza Strip, during a trip to Egypt next Monday.

“We are in talks with our Egyptian brothers,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I may or may not go to Gaza.”

Although ties between the former allies began to chill after Israel’s military offensive against Hamas in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9, the current dispute was triggered by a May 2010 Israeli navy raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla. The interception of vessels including the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara saw deadly clashes between Israeli commandos and pro-Palestinian activists that left nine activists dead.

Mavi Marmara

The Israeli government is blaming extremists from the Turkish organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH) for the violence that erupted onboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara when troops boarded it at sea on Monday. In this photo of the ship before setting sail, a white and green IHH banner is visible on the hull, between Turkish and Palestinian flags. (Photo: IHH)

A long-awaited U.N. report into the incident called the Israeli raid “excessive and unreasonable” but also described the flotilla organizers’ deliberate attempt to breach Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory as “a dangerous and reckless act.”

Its conclusion that the Israeli blockade of Gaza was a “legitimate security measure” and that its implementation “complied with the requirements of international law” was especially galling for Erdogan and his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has repeatedly called the blockade “illegal.”

After the U.N. report’s release late last week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accepted it with some reservations. He reiterated Israel’s long-declared stance that it would not apologize for the actions of its commandos who came under violent assault, but also expressed “regret over the loss of life.”

Netanyahu voiced “hope that a way will be found to overcome the disagreement with Turkey,” adding that “Israel has never wanted a deterioration in its relations with Turkey; neither is Israel interested in such a deterioration now.”

A similarly conciliatory tone came from Israeli opposition leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. “Our shared interests are far greater than what we disagree about,” she wrote in an op-ed published in Turkey’s Hurriyet daily on Tuesday. “We should be wary of damaging this important relationship by acting emotionally. Now is the time for both Israel and Turkey to think with our heads, not with our hearts, and to act carefully.”

Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Steven Cook attributed Erdogan’s decision to go on the offensive this week to the fact the U.N. report had dealt a “devastating blow to the Turkish narrative of the legal and political issues surrounding the incident.”

“[A] United Nations report that is so at variance with the core of Ankara’s narrative about the flotilla incident is a problem for Erdogan and his government,” Cook wrote. “At best they look weak and at worst, they look quite frankly, like bumblers so caught up in their hubris that they did not consider the possibility that the U.N.-sanctioned panel could find fault with Turkey’s legal reasoning or actions.”

American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin described the Turkish government’s response to the U.N. report as a “temper tantrum.”

Missile defense link?

In Turkey, the leader of the official opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, accused Erdogan of assuming a “fake” anti-Israel stance in a bid to divert domestic attention away from the politically-sensitive announcement Friday that Turkey will host a radar system as part of a NATO missile defense shield aimed at protecting Europe from Iranian ballistic missiles.

“It becomes clearer day by day that the AKP mentality, which is failing to get its proposals accepted in the international arena, is resorting to fake enmity with Israel in order to maintain support in domestic politics and to prevent debates over the missile shield project,” Bahceli said in a statement Tuesday.

“If the AKP is playing the Israel card to gloss over the missile shield issue and to change the agenda, this plan will be soon exposed and it will pay the price for that,” he added.

As the two Middle East nations grapple with the implications of the fall-out, analysts have very different views on what is motivating the governments and how they should proceed.

Bulent Kenes, editor in chief of Today’s Zaman, Turkey’s biggest-circulating English daily, described the rift as a “blood feud” between the Erdogan and Netanyahu administrations that will only end when one of them leaves office.

Kenes has no doubt which of them is more likely to do so.

“In Turkey, the domestic policy is extremely stable and the government is very strong, self-confident and far-sighted while in Israel, the government is extremely weak, unstable and, unfortunately, short-sighted,” he wrote in a column.

“[T]he one that should go is not the AK Party government, which has consolidated its democratic legitimacy and is acting as the leader of democratization in Turkey and the region, but the fragile Netanyahu government, which has sacrificed Israel’s vital interests to the delusions of far-right [foreign minister Avigdor] Lieberman.”

Ron Ben-Yishai, national security correspondent for Israel’s Yediot Ahronot, characterized Erdogan’s approach as the latest in a string of foreign policy setbacks, including failure to advance Turkey’s bid to join the European Union; the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, in whom Turkey had invested heavily in recent years; the cooling of the relationship with Iran which Erdogan had energetically sought; and the crisis in Syria, where President Bashar Assad has repeatedly ignored Ankara’s pleadings and threats over his violent crackdown.

Still, Ben-Yishai said that Israel, as a close ally of the United States, should aim to restore ties with Ankara – “mostly because Turkey is important for the U.S., which is important to us.”

“As a trustworthy, strategic ally [of the U.S.], Israel now needs to lower its profile and minimize the damages if possible,” he said. “However, Israel should not be apologizing and should firmly stand up to legal and diplomatic challenges every time Erdogan slams them in our face.”