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Turkey is paying the price on our behalf

January 24, 2014 at 2:21 pm

By Fahmi Howeidi

Turkey now has to pay the political price for its solidarity with the Palestinian people, even perhaps a coup, the warning signs for which have already appeared across the Middle East. All of this comes in the wake of the Marvi Marmara incident, with repercussions and discussions taking place in the public and political spheres.

On Turkish Channel Seven television, guests on one programme included two people who were on the main vessel of the Freedom Flotilla attacked by Israel in international waters last month. One, an artist named Sinan Albayrak, told viewers that his fiancée has said that as soon as they are married they must both travel with the next flotilla to try to break the siege of Gaza. A second guest was a former fashion model who joined the first flotilla out of humanitarian concerns but is now dedicating herself to struggle for the Palestinian cause. The third guest was the father of 19 year-old US-Turkish citizen Furkan Dogan who was killed by Israeli forces in their attack; Mr. Dogan said that he regards his son as a martyr and that Furkan’s brother and sister have decided to join the next convoy heading for Gaza.

These are not exceptional feelings; they reflect the position of the majority of people in Turkey whose eyes have been opened to the real and very ugly face of Israel by the invasion of 2008/9 and the hijacking of the humanitarian aid convoy. The public conscience has been awakened in Turkey and, despite the shedding of Turkish blood on the Marvi Marmara, there is great enthusiasm and support for a second, even bigger flotilla, which aims to set sail in the last two weeks of July.

The anger of the government in Ankara is matched by an angry public that the killing of Turks by the Israelis was neither a mistake nor coincidental. The belief is that this was a warning to the government of Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has taken a leading role in political opposition to Israeli aggression in Gaza and the West Bank. According to Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gul, on more than one occasion, his country’s relationship with Israel will not return to its former status.

Mr. Erdogan’s government has been looking at the repercussions of the Israeli attack on three levels: domestic politics; relations with Israel; and the Turkey-US relationship.

Internally, the one constant is the increase in popularity of the ruling party and its leader, which a poll puts at 40%, rising from 33% just a few weeks ago. This has prompted criticism from opposition parties and interest groups associated with Israel and the USA. The motives for the latter two are obvious, while the opposition parties are suggesting that there could be serious consequences arising from moves away from American and Israeli spheres of influence. Some commentators claim that Erdogan is keen to escalate the rift with Israel to enhance his party’s position in time for parliamentary elections next year.

Politics aside, the influence of the army in Turkey cannot be overlooked entirely. Traditionally the generals have played a key role in Turkey’s government, and at the moment the consensus is that Mr. Erdogan and the General Staff are in agreement on this issue. However, the military’s influence has waned and is not as strong as in the past, in part because of what was seen as unacceptable interference in the democratic process.

The relationship with Israel is more complex, and the flotilla attack will be seen as a major turning point in well-established relations between the two countries. Key military and intelligence agreements led at one stage to talk of a Turkey-Israel-US axis in the Middle East. Such talk seems to be extremely optimistic now. Developments raise two questions. How will Turkey deal with Israel? What options does Israel have in response to the Turkish position, which challenges its authority and power in the region?

Ankara has four demands post-flotilla attack: an international investigation; an apology from Israel; financial compensation to the families of the victims; the return of the ships that were hijacked. All except the last have to-date been rejected by Israel.

When Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest at the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it took ten years before full diplomatic relations were restored. The latest situation is being described as a “new low” in those relations. This could actually lead to a revision of the fifty-nine agreements between the two countries covering such things as trade links and military and security arrangements worth $7.5 billion to Israel. The loss of this sum would be a crippling blow to Israel’s economy as well as the Israeli military establishment, which among other things would lose the right to use Turkish airspace to train its pilots. Sources close to the government insist that it will be difficult for Israel alone to put pressure on the Turkish government. Israel, it seems, needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Israel.

As such, the same sources insist that Israel will rely on its support in Washington to put pressure on Ankara. This will be both diplomatic pressure and covert pressure by undercover agents to foment unrest in the Kurdish regions of Turkey as well as civil unrest across the country. Meanwhile, the Foreign Relations Committee of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) has held a special session to discuss what was described as “the Armenian genocide” in order to annoy Turkey, and a popular campaign has been launched to boycott Turkey as a tourist destination for Israelis as well as Turkish industrial and agricultural products. Reports claim that Israeli tourist groups have cancelled their bookings while the number of tourists from Arab countries has increased by 40% over the past year. It is noted that Arab tourists spend more money in Turkey than their Israeli counterparts. The irony of Israel calling for boycotts of Turkey while claiming that similar boycotts against the Jewish state are tantamount to “anti-Semitism” appears to have been lost on Western commentators.

Of course, Israel cannot get angry at Turkey without it having an effect in Washington. Media reports in the US say that Republican and Democrat members of Congress have warned Turkey about what they consider to be its “hostility” towards Israel; one Republican, Mike Pence, said that Turkey “will pay the price” if it continues with its rapprochement with Iran and its increasing hostility towards Israel. Democrat Eliot Engel called Turkey’s actions “shameful”. That’s right: Israel attacked a convoy of ships in international waters and hijacked the ships, their passengers and cargo, killing and wounding civilians in the process, but it is Turkey’s response which these Americans regard as “shameful”. One hundred and twenty-six members of the House of Representatives signed a letter requesting President Obama to oppose any international condemnation of “Israel” for its aggression against the Freedom Flotilla.

An article attributed to the New York Times states that Washington considers Turkey’s positions on Iran and Israel to be direct challenges to US policies. One commentator is quoted as saying that Turkey is “messing with the region and taking steps inconsistent with the desires of the great powers”. According to the same article, the big question is how Turkey can be put in, and kept in, its place. US imperialism rules; we may well be witnessing a revolution in the geo-political make-up of the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.