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Much to ponder for Turkey and Israel once the dust settles

HDN | 6/7/2010 12:00:00 AM | SEMİH İDİZ

Put in a nutshell, the sympathy that Turkey initially garnered as a result of the lethal way that Israel conducted the operation is set to evaporate in the West if the AKP is not more balanced.

Once the dust settles down, as it has started to, sensible and level-headed minds in Turkey and Israel will have to sit down and consider how matters could have been brought to such a head between these two countries that have always been seen as “strategic allies” in the turbulent Middle East, and have on the whole enjoyed good economic and social ties that were beneficial to both sides.

In fact we already see serious questions being asked in both countries over the whole debacle in the Eastern Mediterranean which left nine Turks dead after Israel’s military operation in international waters. That this operation was botched by the Israeli Defense Forces is now part of the international literature on the matter so there is no need to go into it here.

How such a supposedly experienced military – that was always complimented 20 to 30 years ago for the finesse with which it carried out such operations – could end up in this highly embarrassing situation from a political as well as military stand point is after all, for Israelis to answer.

As for the Turkish side, there are equally – if not more – serious questions to be asked and we are happy to see that they are slowly but surely surfacing now. The most important of these questions must of course be this: How can such a large country as Turkey with interests in four continents, and with an export and investment driven economy requiring extra caution all around the globe be dragged to the brink of war by a nongovernmental organization?

To many in and outside Turkey, the answer seems to be simple. This happened because the NGO in question is what a friend humorously referred to as a “GNGO,” in other words a “governmental-non-governmental-organization.” While there may not be any evidence of a direct link here, there can be no mistake that the Erdoğan government is morally and politically behind this group – the İHH – that has now gained international fame according to some, and notoriety according to others.

Neither is this the first instance of this group putting Turkey in a difficult situation diplomatically after it was aided and abetted by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. It will be recalled that the same group tried to force its way through the sealed off Rafah gate between Egypt and Gaza some months ago, only to end up clashing with Egyptian forces and straining ties between Ankara and Cairo.

It was telling then that one of the leading “activists” on the Turkish side in that event was Murat Mercan, a key AKP figure, a parliamentary deputy and the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament. Turkish-Egyptian ties are still recovering from what happened at that time. But it is clear that the latest events in the Eastern Mediterranean were watched closely in Cairo too, where there must have been further displeasure among the leadership over Prime Minister Erdoğan’s agitation of Arab streets.

As for the images from Turkey that were reflected across the globe following last week’s incident, it was a purely Islamic one, with headscarved and turbaned protestors chanting Islamic slogans under Islamic banners, and invoking the name of Allah for days on end in front of Israeli missions in this country. Certain remarks by Prime Minister Erdoğan, on the other hand, only went to reinforce this impression, especially when he told a visibly Islamic crowd in Konya a few days ago that Hamas was not a terrorist organization.

It was inevitable then that all of this should have started to turn the tide in the Western media against Turkey, as is apparent from a number of commentaries that have appeared over the past few days. If one considers that there is still an Iran crisis that has to be played out between Turkey and the West and particularly between Turkey and the U.S., it is clear that this impression is only going to crystallize further in the coming days and weeks in ways that Foreign Minister Davutoglu would obviously not want to see.

Put in a nutshell, the sympathy that Turkey initially garnered as a result of the lethal way that Israel conducted this operation is set to evaporate in the West if the AKP government does not begin to chart a more balanced course on Iran and Hamas, a course which is more in keeping with the country’s international commitments as a NATO ally.

It’s all very well for Turkish officials to shower Israel and the Netanyahu government with negative adjectives, no doubt most of them deserved in this case. But Turkey has to tread cautiously in such matters because of a host of reasons to do with its own long term interests. It also goes without saying that Israel cannot afford to squander its longstanding ties with Turkey, no matter what the anger in that country may be toward the Erdoğan government.

Having said this though, it is not clear when these ties might regain a semblance of normalcy, especially as long as Prime Minister Erdoğan and Prime Minister Netanyahu are in power. It seems therefore that relations will be in the cooler for some time, even if they are not totally severed.

This does not mean, however, that new crises will not erupt between the two countries in the meantime, thus spoiling relations even further. This is why we suggested in our last piece that Washington has to take an active role here and prevent a further deterioration by displaying leadership. After all, the U.S. is a country that also stands to lose much if things get any worse between Israel and Turkey.

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