Israel’s Raid and Loss of an Ally

07 June 2010
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Historians will remember June 1, 2010 as a landmark in the Middle Eastern politics. As soon as the international news agencies announced the Israeli attack on the ships, Israeli government started censorship and the international community did not know exactly what happened that morning. Following the ultimatum of the Turkish Foreign Minister, Israel deported all the activists and we began to find out details of the incident from the eyewitnesses. Statements of both the President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan show that this event is a turning point in Turkish – Israeli relations. Things are never going to be the same again. The near future is going to mark the break of Turkish – Israeli relations. 

Before getting into the discussion, in the light of the stories told by the activists who returned to Turkey, let us briefly remember the event. On May 31, 2010 before dawn, Israeli forces approached flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. The flotilla was in the international water, 72 nautical miles away from Israel. After the soldiers seized five of the six ships, they moved towards to the leading ship, Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship. According to the witnesses, including the Knesset member Haneen Zuabi, Israeli soldiers opened fire before they got on the ship. Some of the activists on Mavi Marmara ship attacked and beat the Israeli soldiers who got on the ship and four of the soldiers were wounded. We wish that a group of people who came to Mediterranean Sea for humanitarian aid did not resort to violence at all, even for defensive purposes. Head of the Turkish Charity organization, IHH, (participant of the flotilla from Turkey) says that they gave up resistance because they did not want more activists to be killed. The activists were taken to Ashdod port with the ships. While the activists were under custody, following the ultimatum from Turkish Foreign Minister, Israel deported all activists except those seriously wounded.  

Is Turkish government responsible for the flotilla’s attempt?
Israeli officials accuse Turkey of provoking Israel and argue that Turkish government could have stopped the flotilla before the ships set out. First of all, this is an international movement including people from several countries, including non-muslim nations. Turkey leg of the flotilla is organized by IHH (Humanitarian Relief Fund), which is a non-governmental, non-for-profit organization. Turkish government does not have the right to prevent its citizens from participating in international movements. If that was possible, the U.S could have prevented its own citizens from protesting G-8 meetings. Moreover, some members of parliaments from the ruling AKP wanted to join the flotilla but the Prime Minister did not approve, therefore they did not participate. 

Turkey did not provide any political or economic support to the flotilla. One may argue that the government approves the idea and the objective of the flotilla. It is true that Turkish Prime Minister harshly criticizes the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Both the U.N report and the Amnesty International report show that a great majority of the people in Gaza are in need of help. Even though Turkish government believes that the Gaza blockade is unjustifiable, it did not take a role in the organization of the flotilla project.  

Israel could have managed the crisis better
The first remarks of the Israeli officials show that the military raid on the aid ships was not premeditated. It seems that the raid was not well planned and discussed among the government members. The same day some Israeli cabinet members, journalists, and activists criticized their government for using excessive and unnecessary force. Many journalists wrote the same day that using military force to stop ships carrying humanitarian aid will damage Israel by making it look like a country which cannot even tolerate humanitarian aid to its enemy.

Danny Ayalon, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, first stated that the Israeli soldiers were there to check if the ships carried any weapons to Gaza. Later on, he changed his statement and said that the flotilla is linked to the Al-Qaida because, according to Israeli government, a high-rank Hamas leader was on board. In fact, it turned out that this person was not with the activists. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S says that the activists attacked the Israeli soldiers. But the latest videos recorded by the journalists in the flotilla show that activists began to attack Israeli soldiers after they got on the ship and opened fire from the helicopter.

Besides, Israeli soldiers could have searched the ships for arms without using their own weapons. If Israeli soldiers went to ships unarmed with a white-flag to search for arms, I believe that we would not be talking about this crisis today. Instead of soldiers, Tel Aviv administration could have sent civil government officials to check the load of the flotilla.

Relations Will Sour For Few Years
As the crisis broke out, Ankara did not prefer to react emotionally. Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu have made the harshest statements they could in diplomatic language. The government persistently makes it clear that rather than retaliating Israeli government Ankara will use its rights stemming from international law. 

Erdogan was in Chile for a formal visit and on his way to Turkey at the airport he said few harsh words accusing Israel for committing state terrorism. The next day, his speech at the Turkish Parliament was the clear signal that this crisis is a turning point for two long-time allies. Foreign Minister and Mr. Erdogan listed their demands from Israel but did not specify what they will do if Israel does not cooperate. Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Arinc already eliminated military option by saying that “nobody should expect us to declare war.”

Turkish government’s strategy is to revise the relations with Israel and make some modifications which will not be for Israel’s advantage. In fact, Erdogan gave a clue of his government’s future attitude towards Israel on Tuesday when he said that “Turkey’s hostility is as powerful as the preciousness of its friendship. Losing the friendship and alliance of Turkey itself is a big price to pay”. Prime Minister Erdogan showed that the measures his government takes will not harm two countries’ long-term relations but will show the current Israeli government the importance of Turkey’s alliance with Israel. In other words, Erdogan will make sure that the Israeli state understand what they cannot do without Turkey.

Initially, Ankara called its ambassador to Tel Aviv and cancelled three scheduled military exercises with Israel. It is very likely that in the near future we will see more measures taken by Turkey against Israel. The number one area the measures to be taken will be the military. Defense industry has been the driving force of the Turkish – Israeli relationship. Turkish government will not force private businesses to revise their relations with Israeli companies but Israeli companies should not expect to win public bids in Turkey for the next few years because Turkish government may prohibit Israel’s participation in public tenders as it did to Italian companies in 1999 when the latter hosted the head of PKK.

Relations will remain tense for the next couple of years and will be better (but never like before) when a more moderate and conciliatory government comes to power in Israel. It is possible to find evidence for this expectation in Erdogan’s speech on Tuesday. He rightly distinguished between the Israeli people and the current Benjamin Netanyahu government. Turkey’s foreign policy principle of good relations with neighbors has paid its price so far. Producing an enemy in this hotspot of the world will not be desirable for Turkey who claims to bridge civilizations. Israel can rebuild friendly relations with Turkey but what is certain is that Israel has lost its privileged status in Turkey.

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