The ties that drowned

The main goal of the flotilla’s Turkish organizers was to deepen the wedge between Turkey and Israel.

TurkishDemonstrationBurningStarOfDavid311 (photo credit: .)
(photo credit: .)
ISTANBUL – In Taksim Square, the bustling center of modern Istanbul, a guide is leading a crocodile of Japanese tourists across the tram lines toward the Istiklal Caddesi, the city’s lengthy, teeming pedestrian promenade.
The tram driver waits patiently for them to cross while, on the second car of his tram, which has been set up as a mobile stage, a local six-piece band entertains the milling crowds with a Latin American repertoire that sounds like it came straight out of Buena Vista Social Club.
A few paces away, locals and tourists alike are taking turns to pose for photographs beneath the Republic Monument, an 82- year-old sculpture that shows Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his revolutionary colleagues. It is a statue that serves both as an homage to the father of modern secular Turkey and as a deliberate challenge to the Islamic traditions, such as the bar on the exhibition of graven images, he sought to eclipse.
It’s not hard to imagine, therefore, what Ataturk would have made of the thousands of fierce, Islamist demonstrators who gathered in this square two-and-a- half weeks ago, many of whom were brandishing Palestinian flags and Hizbullah flags, several of whom were burning Israeli flags, and some of whom were calling for revenge, war and jihad against Israel.
Speak to the overwhelmingly modern-dressed Turks strolling along the Istiklal today, and they’ll tell you that they, too, were, and remain, outraged by the killings of nine of their countrymen by Israeli commandos aboard the Mavi Marmara, but that the militant Islamic tone of the demonstration in the square was unrepresentative.
“These people were bused in from outside,” says one.
Another asserts that “they were paid to be there.” A third notes that “we were shopping as usual even as they were screaming and shouting.”
But the middle-class shoppers on this classy town-center boulevard – where rap and pop blare out from rooftop clubs, English-language book stores thrive and there’s a sex shop around the corner – also acknowledge that they themselves are somewhat unrepresentative of their city and that Western, modern Istanbul is itself unrepresentative of a country that, despite Ataturk’s strategic efforts, remains insistently, traditionally Islamic.
One American-born journalist who has lived in this sprawling city long enough, and traveled through this country widely enough, to start to make sense of its complexities is adamant that “Ataturk’s experiment in secularism is being rolled back” by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the two-term prime minister who is currently slashing his way through decades of Turkish relations with Israel.
But there is no consensus among the innumerable analysts and would-be experts about exactly where Erdogan wants to take this geo-politically pivotal land – whether it is fully or only partly out of the Western embrace to compete with Iran for regional leadership, fully or only partly along the road to Islamic fundamentalism. And while the relationship between the present Turkish and Israeli leaderships is plainly beyond salvation, the prospects of Israel eventually reviving its ties with the second country, after Iran, that our founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion regarded as central to Israel’s regional well-being, are thus uncertain.
One commentator all but snorted in my face at the notion that Erdogan is an Islamist who is ideologically committed to destroying relations with the Jewish state. He ridiculed the idea that the prime minister was directly involved in the flotilla affair. He flatly rejected claims that the Mavi Marmara had been made available cheaply to the pro-Hamas, reportedly terror- linked IHH (Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms).
He asserted that the Taksim Square protests were primarily the work of other Islamic players, notably the rival Saadet party. And he said that had Erdogan wanted the masses out on the streets, there would have been tens if not hundreds of thousands of protesters rather than a few thousand.
He noted, accurately, that the flotilla protests were mild by comparison to those that flared at the height of Operation Cast Lead in winter 2008, when a three-story pro-Palestine banner was unfurled from the building opposite the main synagogue here and prudent members of the Jewish community stayed away. He also pointed out, again accurately, that Turkish-Israeli relations have always risen and fallen depending on developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But another reporter, whom I have known for many years and whose judgments I have always found credible, was bitterly critical of Erdogan and his analysis was dire. He considers Erdogan to be one of the most significant leaders to have emerged in this region since Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Erdogan is a charismatic and highly effective populist politician, he says, and one who received his political education in the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic Turkish Islamist movement. The prime minister may have put aside this ideological baggage in the early years of his AKP (Justice and Development Party) rule, says this reporter, but it’s certainly back now.
In this analysis, Erdogan, when first elected seven years ago, accepted the conventional wisdom here about the centrality of the United States-Israel-Turkey axis, maintained the longstanding military relationship with Israel, and attempted to utilize the partnership with Israel in order to advance his goal of elevating Turkey into a regional superpower.
To that end, he injected himself into the fragile Israel-Syria peacemaking framework, and prime minister Ehud Olmert, anxious to give Erdogan a sense of involvement, purported to welcome the role. But just when Erdogan believed he had drawn Olmert and Assad to the brink of a breakthrough after a visit to Turkey by the Israeli prime minister in the winter of 2008, Olmert launched Cast Lead against Hamas. This left Erdogan, who had personally vouched for Olmert with the Syrians and who had not been told by Olmert about the imminent operation, looking like a fool. And he made his outrage public when castigating President Shimon Peres at that winter’s Davos gathering of the World Economic Forum.
ERDOGAN HAS not been particularly energized by the fate of the West Bank Palestinians, under Fatah’s secular leadership, although Turkish TV’s predilection for viciously anti-Israeli drama initially focused on the crimes of the occupation. But his natural sympathies are most definitely with Gaza – with the oppressed Muslim masses. To some extent, according to my reporter friend, Erdogan sees himself and his supporters as Hamas to Ataturk’s Fatah. And if the Gaza war reawakened a proclivity to mistrust the Jews, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s humiliation of his ambassador deepened the sense of grievance, and the killings on the Mavi Marmara have now inflated the antagonism to unprecedented levels.
Erdogan has also plainly come to recognize the benefits – domestically, and arguably internationally – of allying himself to Gaza’s humanitarian cause, and of harnessing Ataturk-style nationalism against Israel. His popularity at home, which had been slipping ahead of next year’s elections in the face of a mini-revival by the opposition Republican Peoples Party, has been rising again in the last couple of weeks. A series of conferences and gatherings in recent days have seen him hailed as the latest regional strongman by nations hostile to Israel. Any marginal economic impact of the collapse in trade and tourism with Israel is more than offset by the opening of economic doors elsewhere in the Middle East. And while the prospects of Turkey gaining EU membership are receding ever further, many analysts here believe Erdogan is not actually all that interested in becoming a minor patient in the economic sick bay of Europe.
Erdogan, furthermore, has not been made to feel a particular chill from Barack Obama’s Washington, despite Turkey’s “no” vote at the UN Security Council last week on sanctions against Iran, despite incitement against Israel that has veered toward anti-Semitism, and despite his dangerous and irresponsible promotion of the terrorist Hamas government – an affront not only to Israel but to the relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas-Salam Fayyad West Bank leadership, and to the international community.
Indeed, Erdogan has felt sufficiently emboldened as to castigate the US, too, of late, over its policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. And the speed with which the US and other heavyweight international players have come around to the idea that the Israeli blockade of Gaza is unfair, unsustainable and quite possibly illegal constitutes nothing short of vindication. So successful has Erdogan been in placing Israel on the defensive while raising Turkey’s global profile, and so meek has been the international response to his championing of Hamas, indeed, that the Iranians must be privately furious at the stealing of their anti-Israel thunder.
My reporter friend, in contrast to his derisive colleague, wonders whether Erdogan had at least his fingertips in the flotilla affair. He speculates that the Mavi Marmara was made available to the IHH on very favorable terms. But even if there was no direct involvement, he notes, Erdogan’s increasingly vehement rhetoric regarding Gaza these past 18 months has turned the fate of the Strip into a dominant, emotive issue in Turkey and meant that the flotilla, though formally an NGO initiative, was essentially a proxy for Turkish policy. He also doubts that Erdogan is much troubled by the extremist tone of the domestic demonstrations; protesters were waving placards quoting Erdogan’s own invective against Peres at Davos from January 2009: “You know how to kill people.”
The Turkish public is volatile and excitable, my friend further notes, and not unsurprisingly supportive of an Islamic populace being blockaded. And after nine of your own citizens have been shot dead by commandos, you don’t lose points as prime minister for turning on the country that killed them.
Indeed, when a secular rival, responding to Erdogan’s reminder to Israel that “Thou shalt not kill,” tried to make domestic political capital a few days ago by telling Erdogan that the 10 commandments also rule out lying and stealing, the prime minister slapped him down by branding him an advocate for Tel Aviv – thus drawing Israel, to his advantage, into the heart of Turkey’s religious- secular debate.
AMONG PEOPLE here who care about Israel and want to salvage the relationship, there is despair that Erdogan has managed to weaken and marginalize what might previously have been Turkish military opposition to his reorientation of foreign policy.
There are also voices, including in the Turkish diplomatic community, that opine that Erdogan is going too far and that cannot conceal their frustration at Israel’s accommodating incompetence.
The intelligence and operational failures surrounding the fatal interception are regarded as evidence of Israel’s declining capacity to effectively safeguard its interests. Such failures are seen as all of a piece with a country that has chosen a foreign minister no one will talk to; a deputy who, with the saga of the low sofa, egregiously insulted the national pride of a country where that pride really matters; and a defense minister who used to be the most effective liaison with Ankara but is now utterly reviled because of the flotilla deaths. Needless to say, there is no direct prime ministerial contact whatsoever. The last wobbling government bridge to Turkey is now probably Trade Minister Fuad Ben-Eliezer.
The IHH and those organizations like it, it is noted here, are seeking any and every avenue to deepen the wedge between Jerusalem and Ankara. They regard Israel as fundamentally illegitimate, and thus Turkey’s ties to Israel as fundamentally immoral. The primary aim of the flotilla was not to reach Gaza. That was a secondary mission, always unlikely to be fulfilled. The main aim was to further unravel Turkey’s ties to Israel. It was a trap, and the Israeli navy sailed blindly into it.
MORE THAN two weeks after the disaster at sea, the Turkish media, World Cup notwithstanding, is still full of the story.
The worst, most tendentious accounts of what occurred aboard the Mavi Marmara are endlessly regurgitated on political TV talk shows, on the radio and in the newspapers, with added context that purports to show Israel’s history and strategy of brutal indifference.
In Sunday’s Zaman, Mahmet Kalyoncu, an international relations analyst, claimed Israeli commandos shot an Indonesian doctor four times in the stomach while he was treating them, took a baby hostage, and sang slogans mocking Erdogan’s Davos outburst even as they gunned down the Turkish activists.
Purporting to describe “What really happened to the Gaza flotilla,” meanwhile, Mustafa Akyol asked in the Hurriyet a few days ago: “Did the activists just keep beating the soldiers in order to ‘lynch’ them, as Benjamin Netanyahu argued? The IHH folks at the press conference [they held in Istanbul last week] insisted that this was not their aim, and they smacked the commandos only to unarm them. Once they took hold of their guns and threw them to the sea, they added, they actually took the soldiers to the doctor of the ship for medical treatment.
Photographs published both in the Turkish media and The New York Times confirm this narrative. They show Dr.
Hasan Huseyin Uysal of the Mavi Marmara cleansing and treating the bruises of an Israeli commando… I am convinced that the Israelis were needlessly brutal – and certainly criminal.”
“Twenty-two Arab states offered to make peace if Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders,” wrote commentator Abdulhamit Bilici in Today’s Zaman earlier this week, selecting a wider vantage point from which to blacken Israel’s name.
“Obama lent his support to this offer in Egypt, but Israel not only ignored it, it also sought ways to weaken Obama… It conducted such a brutal attack on the Mavi Marmara… that it killed nine members of a nation that had helped Jews at every opportunity in the past… Then, instead of compensating for this great scandal and disgrace, it arrested the civilians and denied any trace of information to the outside world. The UN and NATO condemned the incident and demanded an independent investigation.
Israel not only refused this, but a government official affixed medals to those who conducted the violent intervention.”
Concluded Bilici: “What Israel gains as a country which is currently represented by the Netanyahu government, kills at will, does not account for its actions, does not care about the UN resolutions in the least, does not issue a visa to Jewish intellectual Noam Chomsky, treats international famed professor of law Richard Falk as a terrorist and which ignores the report prepared by world famous South African/Jewish judge Richard Goldstone, can only be a Pyrrhic victory… Of course Israel is free to ignore its loss of Turkey and maintain its lunacy, but it will have to accept its consequences.”
Over and over, Israel is being accused in the Turkish media of “self-alienation,” of behavior that has turned it into a terrorstate, leaving Turkey with no choice but to downgrade relations to the breaking point.
Some calmer voices are heard.
“Turkey did not come to this point overnight,” argued Washington- based analyst Murat Onur in the Hurriyet on Saturday.
“In the last couple [of] years, conspiracy theories linking Israel to almost all the problems Turkey faces became so widespread that even serious media outlets followed the trend… Perhaps the worst effect of the Gaza flotilla raid is the hatred planted in the national memories of two peoples that were once called friends.”
In the same paper, commentator Cengiz Aktar was viciously critical of Erdogan, a prime minister, he noted, who “has never uttered the term ‘two-state solution,’ sided with Hamas – which dreams of nothing but wiping Israel off the map – and welcomes the Jew-hater Ahmadinejad… Determined to find solutions to regional conflicts, Turkey seems to be slowly becoming part of the problem.”
In Sunday’s Zaman, columnist Michael Kuser even cited The Jerusalem Post’s recent interview with one of the naval commandos “who had killed six of the nine dead in order to save his comrades from certain death.
The Israeli said he knew the socalled peace activists were former soldiers, or at least had military training, when they did not flinch at warning shots.”
But such analyses are relatively few and far between. And helping to outweigh them are all of Israel’s familiar external and homegrown delegitimizers, including those repugnant anti- Zionist perennials Natorei Karta, who sent a delegation to Istanbul last weekend. In a resonant Turkish CNN interview on Sunday, their spokesman said he had come to apologize for the latest in the Zionists’ “series of crimes,” and took pains to stress at great length that Israel, far from being an authentic Jewish state, was an unholy aberration, its very existence a sin against Judaism.
THE HISTORY of warm relations with the Jews, to which many commentators allude, is rich indeed. The Jewish Museum of Turkey here, which refers to evidence of a Jewish presence in Anatolia dating back to the fourth century BCE, recalls Sultan Bayezud II’s unique call, when learning of the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492, “not to refuse the Jews entry or cause them difficulties, but to receive them cordially.”
It exhibits an 1841 firman (decree) issued by Sultan Abdulmecid, aimed at halting blood libels against the Jews. Under Kashrut, the Sultan noted, “the use of not only human blood but also that of animals is expressly forbidden,” and thus Jews “should in no way be abased or humiliated with such falsehoods.” This was just one in a series of rulers’ decrees that were used in the Jews’ defense in a number of blood libel cases in Europe.
The museum highlights the refuge offered by Turkey to Russian Jews fleeing pogroms in the late 1800s and early 1900s, notes that Ataturk in 1933 invited prominent Jewish scientists to come to Turkey to escape the Nazis, and recalls the heroism of a series of Turkish diplomats in Nazi-occupied Europe in saving Jews from the Holocaust.
The diplomatic relationship with Israel has been unbroken since 1949, after Turkey became one of the first Muslim countries to recognize the Jewish state.
But it is close to collapse now.
“I love my country, and I love Israel,” a member of the local Jewish community, who wears a Star of David at his neck and has the Turkish flag tattooed on his forearm, told me this week as we sat at a café just off the Istiklal. “I shouldn’t have to choose between them.”