Magazine article The Middle East

The End of the Road: Israeli Aggression against Peace Activists aboard a Turkish Vessel in International Waters Has Marked the End of the Friendship between Ankara and Tel Aviv

Magazine article The Middle East

The End of the Road: Israeli Aggression against Peace Activists aboard a Turkish Vessel in International Waters Has Marked the End of the Friendship between Ankara and Tel Aviv

Article excerpt

AFTER ISRAELI COMMANDOS STORMED aboard the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, killing nine peace activists and abruptly ending an international effort to break the Gaza blockade, Turkey found itself at the centre of global protests against Tel Aviv.

Four of those killed were Turkish citizens, while many more Turks had invested their emotions and hopes in the convoy. A Turkish Islamist charity, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), had sponsored the Mavi Marmara, while many members of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had also given the convoy their support.

There was thus a great deal of outrage at the assault on the ship in international waters during the early hours of 31 May. Indeed, Turkey condemned the Israeli action in the strongest of terms--Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan even dubbing it "inhumane state terrorism". There were also protests in Ankara and Istanbul, notably directed against Israel, rather than against either city's Jewish population.

Turkey then demanded an international enquiry into the incident, made strong efforts to use its seat on the UN Security Council to achieve this, and then made no secret of its disappointment at the expected US watering down of the eventual resolution.

Yet, while leading international criticism of the Israeli action, Ankara was also putting on public view a new, much more active Turkish foreign policy. "This policy is even being described by some Turkish analysts as a 'paradigm shift' in regional international relations.

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Certainly, Turkey's long-standing friendship with Israel, built on the back of shared security concerns over the neighbourhood, is in serious trouble. At the same time, Turkey's long-neglected relationship with the Muslim Middle East--whether that be with the Shias of Iran or the Sunnis of other Arab states--is now unrecognisable, compared to how it was a decade ago.

New assertiveness

Back in 1998, Turkey was nearly at war with Syria, while now its citizens enjoy visa-free travel there and economic, political and cultural relations have boomed. Back then too, Turkey launched regular military assaults into Northern Iraq, and refused to meet with the leaders of that region's Kurdish groups. Now, those same leaders come on official trips to Ankara, while trade with the Iraqi Kurds is also flourishing. Back then as well, Israel and Turkey closely cooperated in security matters, exchanging Israeli weaponry for Turkish training areas, undertaking joint naval manoeuvres and even allegedly cooperating in the capture of Turkey's Kurdish guerrilla leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999. In contrast, after the Mavi Marmara, Ankara said it was reviewing all areas of cooperation with Israel and cancelling all joint exercises.

By taking these actions, Turkey captured the sympathies of many--in the Middle East and beyond--for its stand against Israeli policy. This process started much earlier though, back in 2009, when Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan walked out of the World Economic Forum in Davos, protesting loudly against the Israeli attack on Gaza at the end of 2008.

"Israel has been pursuing its policies for 60 years without anyone saying anything," Bahadir Dincer, Middle East expert with the Ankara-based think-tank, USAK, told The Middle East. "But nowadays, Turkey is standing up and saying something."

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While popular anger fuelled much of Turkey's criticism of Israel after the attack on the Gaza convoy, behind Ankara's position also lies a more general new assertiveness.

This is built on a number of factors. The Turkish economy is now one of the strongest in the Mediterranean and the 16th largest in the world. At the same time, the globe itself has become more multipolar, with many seeing a decrease in US power in the region.

"There is a vacuum in the international system," says Dincer, "as the US is losing its hegemonic power, particularly in the Middle East. …

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