Gaza operation strains ties with Turkey

But assessment in J'lem is that Erdogan's harsh criticism won't have lasting impact on relations.

ASSAD ERDOGAN 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is skipping Israel on his current Middle East tour, not as a demonstrative act of disapproval of the IDF's Gaza Strip operation, but rather because presently he has no concrete proposal to bring here, government sources said Thursday. Erdogan, who visited Syria and Jordan on Wednesday, and Egypt on Thursday, made extremely critical comments about the aerial attacks, characterizing them Saturday as a "crime against humanity," and calling it "ruthless" during his visit to Damascus. In addition, he said Operation Cast Lead, which began four days after a visit to Ankara by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, "is disrespect to Turkey." Israel expressed its reservations to the Turks over these comments through the normal diplomatic channels, including in a Wednesday night telephone conversation between President Shimon Peres and his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul. According to officials in Jerusalem, this was not the way friendly countries talked about one another. Erdogan's complete disregard of Israel's side of the story and the missiles that rained down on the South before the operation, caused annoyance in Jerusalem, especially since Turkey has itself suffered from terrorism. Peres, in his conversation with Gul, relayed the message that the Turks should also take into consideration Israel's side. Still, the overall assessment in Jerusalem is that the operation and the tenor of Erdogan's criticism will not have a lasting impact on Turkish-Israel relations, since strong ties are in the interest of both countries. Furthermore, the close strategic relationship has weathered other periods of tension and caustic comments. For instance, in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, Erdogan's predecessor, Bulent Ecevit, said Israel was committing "genocide" against the Palestinians. Erdogan himself has also had particularly harsh things to say in the past, comparing Israel to a "terrorist state" in 2004, following an operation the Gaza Strip, and blasting Israel for killing Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin that year, saying, "You're destroying with rockets a man two-thirds of whom is paralyzed." "We know the man, we know he is emotional, and we know he has an emotional connection to the Palestinians," one government source said of Erdogan. Another official said Erdogan's comments, including the latest ones relating to Operation Cast Lead, were also intended to mollify a public that was horrified by the televised images. According to this official, there is a great deal of Turkish sympathy for their co-religionists in the Gaza Strip, as well as a feeling of obligation toward them stemming from the Ottoman rule in the area. Furthermore, he said, the Turkish press was extremely tough on Israel, and Erdogan's statements both played to the public sentiment as well as fanned its flames. At the same time, there is a wide gap between the rhetoric and Turkey's diplomatic moves. Erdogan has cut out a role for himself as regional mediator or go-between, and Israeli sources said he wanted to retain that position, and that one condition is that he kept up Turkey's close and intimate ties with Israel.