Turkish honor guard passes Israeli and Turkish flags 58 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Although opposition leader Tzipi Livni has suggested otherwise, the unfortunate truth about our severe crisis with Turkey is that Israeli policymakers were powerless to prevent it. Since his party was elected to power in November 2002, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has made torpedoing our previously fruitful bilateral relationship a primary goal of his foreign policy.
Israel must leverage Turkish rejection of Palmer Report
Erdogan has gone out of his way on a regular basis to generate one crisis after another. In 2004, he suddenly decried the IDF’s demolition of 46 Palestinian buildings in Rafah as "state terrorism" (extraordinarily hypocritical given that between 1984 and 1997, Turkey “depopulated” 3,185 Kurdish villages as it attempted to smoke out Kurdish rebels—actions that left several hundreds of thousands homeless.)
No sooner had that crisis died down then airport authorities in Istanbul surprisingly demanded that El Al drastically reduce the number of security agents it could post, causing El Al to suspend its flights.
Hezbollah's extreme provocations that sparked the Second Lebanon War in 2006 resulted in not-so-quiet approval for Israel's actions from many Sunni Muslim leaders—including in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Erdogan, however, was fiercely critical of Israel on several occasions and called its entire offensive illegitimate. Turkey's criticism during the 2008/9 Gaza War was equally harsh, punctuated by Erdogan famously storming off the stage in Davos. In this respect, the Mavi Marmara
provocation and its recent fallout are simply the last nails in the coffin.
Most troubling of all is that this policy has not come about because Turkish leaders were kowtowing to public opinion, but rather here the leadership clearly shaped public opinion. Erdogan's party has greatly influenced media coverage of the conflict with the Palestinians, which now includes the reporting of totally fictional Israeli war crimes.
Inventing war crimes in newspapers being insufficient, two anti-Semitic television series were broadcast in the past few years. One of which, “Ayrilik,” included depictions of Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian infants at point blank range and IDF firing squads killing unarmed and blindfolded Palestinians. Another reported that the Israeli embassy was involved in kidnapping Turkish children!
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said about Ayrilik:
The series, which has no connection to reality whatsoever, is not even suitable for an enemy country and certainly not for a country that has full diplomatic relations with Israel.
The fact that Ayrilik was broadcast on a government-owned TV channel only emphasizes just how much influence Turkey's leadership had on shaping public opinion.
Erdogan's efforts to cool relations with Israel stand in sharp contrast to his simultaneous efforts to improve Turkey's relations with the rest of the Muslim world—in particular its most rogue and extreme elements. While the rest of the world isolated Hamas after it won the 2006 elections in an attempt to force it to recognize Israel's right to exist, Erdogan was the first to break with the consensus and offer the organization an invitation for a state visit.
Turkey also broke with international consensus as it voted against a UN Security Council resolution last year to put additional sanctions on Iran for failure to end its nuclear weapons program. And until the Assad regime started using its navy to shell its own citizens, Erdogan's government also worked to vastly improve ties with Syria.
Most dismaying in this respect, in a 2009 speech to party members, Erdogan welcomed a visit to Turkey by Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir—a man indicted in The Hague for his role in the murder of 300,000 in Darfur. Erdogan cast doubt on Bashir's indictment, saying simply, "It is not possible for those who belong to the Muslim faith to carry out genocide."
Then, in the very same speech, Erdogan told his audience he would prefer to talk to Bashir than Netanyahu, because the latter's crimes were far greater. And remember: this is still a year before the Mavi Marmara
For the Turkish premier, it's really quite simple: Muslims are incapable of nefarious deeds that Jews are always lusting to commit. In Erdogan's world, Sudanese Arabs could not possibly carry out war crimes, whereas Israelis "even see babies in their cradles as a threat
. They have killed babies in their mothers' arms."
While Erdogan holds that Iran is definitely not pursuing illicit nuclear weapons, and Hamas is a respectable "political party"
(Erdogan categorically refuses to use the term "terrorist organization"), Israelis murder the innocent and are therefore "the real threat to peace
in the Middle East."
Unfortunately, Turkey's domestic opposition have proven themselves incapable of challenging Erdogan's party's grip on power. The army, which traditionally would have intervened long ago, has been defanged in the reform process aimed at ensuring Turkey's entry into the EU.
The conclusion we must draw is that at this point, the only real restraint on Erdogan will be the amount of international pressure brought to bear on him. This strategy must begin by seeking a much stronger American stand on this issue—especially to dissuade Erdogan from deploying the Turkish navy in a way that could actually spark a real military confrontation. No less critical, Israel needs to encourage Europeans (especially Germany, Turkey's largest trading partner) to step in soon. If they fail to act, we can certainly expect Erdogan to continue to escalate this conflict that he has created with his own two hands. The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.