Turkey and Israel relations in crisis after flotilla

By Anshel Pfeffer and Sami Kohen, Istanbul, June 3, 2010
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Turkish protesters shout slogans and wave Palestinian flags during a demonstration outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday

Turkish protesters shout slogans and wave Palestinian flags during a demonstration outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul on Tuesday

The Gaza flotilla affair has plunged the crisis in the Israel-Turkey relationship to new lows and added impetus to Israeli efforts to find alternative allies in the region.

Israeli diplomats admitted this week that the relationship with the Ankara government has never been this bad.

"If we thought that Prime Minister Erdogan could not make things any worse," said one diplomat, "his support for the flotilla and his attacks on us this week have made it clear that there is no longer any strategic alliance between the two countries. At least, not while he is in power."

Turkey has recalled its ambassador from Israel and apparently intends to lower its level of diplomatic representation to chargé d'affaires. Despite this, the belief in Jerusalem is that Ankara will not break off diplomatic relations completely.

Israel is cultivating Greece as an alternative ally

A wave of public anger towards Turkey in Israel has led to widespread cancellations of summer holidays already booked in the popular Turkish resorts. One leading columnist even called upon the government to consider giving aid to the Kurdish underground fighting against the Turkish army.

Meanwhile, Israel has been cultivating over the last year alternative allies in the region. One country that seemed last week eager to deal with Israel was Greece, which announced a 10-day joint exercise between its air force and the Israeli air force. Ten Israeli combat jets and an airborne tanker flew to Crete and carried out mock air battles against Greek jets, taking advantage of Nato bombing ranges. One Israeli pilot who participated in the exercise said "it was very valuable for our experience and especially now that we are not flying in Turkey".

Until recently, Greece's neighbour and historical rival, Turkey, regularly carried out joint exercises with Israel but most of these were cancelled after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last year.

The Israeli military is happy at the chance to broaden its relationship with Greece's army but it is no replacement for the one Israel enjoyed with Turkey, which is not only a regional power but also shares borders with Israel's main enemies, Iran and Syria.

New Turkish opinion polls showing that the ruling Islamist AK Party is slipping behind the secular opposition alliance were naturally greeted in Jerusalem with enthusiasm.

The current government refrained from getting directly involved with the organisation of the flotilla but came out strongly in favour of the Turkish activists following the clashes. Mr Erdogan, who has increased his public hostility towards to Israel since Operation Cast Lead, called on the UN Security Council, Nato and other international organisations to strongly condemn Israel and lobbied world leaders by telephone, including American President Barack Obama. His activity is widely seen as a step towards his long-stated goal of making Turkey a major actor in regional and global affairs.

"Today is a turning point. Nothing is going to be the same," he told the Turkish parliament earlier this week, adding that the Israeli action was a "bloody massacre, an act of piracy and state terrorism".

The six-vessel flotilla included three Turkish ships and over 400 Turkish activists. Four Turks were killed.

"As much as our friendship is valuable, our enmity can be as harsh," Mr Erdogan said.

His words reflect the mood of hostility to Israel prevailing now in Turkey. Anti-Israeli demonstrations in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities have become a daily event. The Turkish media has been adding more fuel to the fire. The pro-government daily Yeni Safak's headline on Tuesday read, "Hitler's Children", while mainstream newspapers carried headlines as "Israel's Massacre" and "Murderers".

As to the effect of these developments on the 23,000-strong Jewish community in Turkey, Mr Erdogan and other top officials have stressed that they oppose any act of antisemitism and they warned people - particularly demonstrators - to refrain from any provocative actions against the Jews. Strict security measures have been taken around synagogues and Jewish communal institutions.

Last updated: 11:34am, June 4 2010