EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN
When Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks everyone listens carefully, especially now that Turkey's Prime Minister has become the most outspoken, most credible and most respected amongst leaders in the Middle East and his government is a key regional player. He has a say in all important political issues to the extent that some Israeli papers have described him as the Gamal Abdul-Nasser of today.
In this interview conducted with Erdogan in Ankara before he left for a tour of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, he talked about the issues and the changes in the Arab world.
(1) On the day I arrived in Ankara, Israel's Maariv newspaper published an article headed "Age of weakness" by Nadav Eyal, in which he wrote about the "the political hurricane" facing the Zionist state. He said that the government in Ankara was challenging Israel, announcing to the world the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the downgrading of economic relations. Eyal said that Turkey is open about the possibility of a confrontation between the two countries over Israel's gas exploration in the Mediterranean, and does not hesitate to threaten Cyprus, a member of the European Union.
When Israel is facing this sort of crisis in its relations with a senior member of NATO and a regional superpower, there have to be strategic changes highlighting Israeli weakness and erosion of status.
Eyal added pointedly that on the day Turkey downgraded its diplomatic ties with Israel and imposed sanctions on its erstwhile ally, it also announced its agreement for a NATO surveillance system to be established on its territory. Ankara wanted to send a clear message to Europe and Washington that it is not breaking relations with the West, only Israel. This was clever of the Turks and not so good for Israel.
The Israeli papers were full of such articles. According to Haaretz (2 September), the world is tired of Israel; Maariv (4 September) said that the Israeli army made a mistake by killing nine Turks on the Mavi Marmara in the Freedom Flotilla, and Israel is paying the price now. Haaretz (2 September) described Israel as "a state in danger". On 7 September Maariz said that an apology to Turkey would spare Israel the strategic damage caused by the sanctions. On the same date Haaretz said that Israel was under siege, not just Gaza.
(2) I told Erdogan that his recent action surprised everyone and has shuffled the cards in the region to the extent that some Israeli parties are raising the spectre of war. Although Defence Minister Ehud Barak disagreed with the commander of the home front at the Institute for National Security Studies on this point, it has to be taken seriously. The Prime Minister said that nothing surprised the Turks. "Ever since the Flotilla raid, we have been clear in our demands: an Israeli apology to the Turkish people and government; compensation for the victims' families; and an end to the inhumane and illegal siege on Gaza." He means it, he told me, but two problems have arisen.
First, Israel is not used to being held to account for its actions and regards itself above the law and exempt from any accountability when it commits mistakes or crimes. Second, Israel is like a spoilt child. "Not content with practising state terrorism against the Palestinians, it behaves in a reckless, irresponsible manner and is surprised when someone tells it to respect others and respect the law."
But does he not consider that hinting at possible armed confrontation has no sound basis? Israel does not want to recognise its mistakes, he replied, or acknowledge that the world around it has changed. "It does not want to understand that there is a democracy in Turkey keen to advocate and defend its people's dignity." Moreover, Israel has not quite recognised the essence of the changes taking place in the Arab world with the people calling for freedom and dignity. "On the contrary, Israel refused to listen to some rational voices from the West recognising what is happening in the region and calling on it to apologise to Turkey for killing its citizens."
"So what did Israel do?" asked Erdogan before answering his own question: "Israel rushes to make accusations of anti-Semitism against anyone who criticises its policies, and some Zionist extremists talk of war." The Prime Minister points out that all his country did in response to Israel's "arrogance" was to call for it to abide by international law and justice to protect the international waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Israel reverted to type and behaved like a spoilt brat, refusing to own up to its mistakes.
When I mentioned the UN commission chaired by Sir Geoffrey Palmer which cleared Israel of aggression against the Flotilla, Erdogan was dismissive.
"The [Palmer] report has no value; it is a sham. It has legitimized the siege on Gaza and thus opened the way to afford legitimacy to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories." Palmer's report, he added, not only contradicts itself but also the Covenant of the United Nations. "We do not recognise it and we will resort to international justice to defend the rights of our people and government. We have in our possession reports and documents which definitely incriminate Israel."
(3) When I asked the Turkish Prime Minister to expand on this point, he said that there are facts about the Flotilla incident which are incontrovertible: The ships were in international waters, for example, 78 miles from the Gaza shoreline; the Flotilla was on a peaceful mission carrying humanitarian relief with no weapons whatsoever; Israeli soldiers stormed the ships by sea and air and they shot peaceful passengers who came from 33 countries altogether for humanitarian purposes; those soldiers shot and killed nine Turkish citizens and wounded many more from other countries, one of whom was a 19 year-old boy with dual Turkish-US citizenship; "we have forensic medical reports proving that they were killed deliberately".
Forensic evidence shows that Furkan Dugan was killed by a bullet to his head fired from a distance of 30cm. A total of 35 bullets killed the nine Turks; five of those bullets were in Dugan's body. Erdogan added that he told this to US President Barak Obama and that Washington had let down one of its citizens; the President made no comment. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen described Furkan Dugan as "The Forgotten American".
At that time, said Erdogan, Turkey had to make its position clear about the naked aggression: "This was not about the Israeli people, but about the state's conduct." He is adamant that the defence of Turkey's own people is more important than relations with Israel, "so we demanded of Israel three things which were mentioned earlier an official apology, compensation and lifting of the blockade of Gaza."
The Prime Minister explained that that was the first step taken in trying to deal with the situation. After raising the issue in many international circles, an investigation commission was formed and a report of 200 pages was issued after a year. "We were very patient during that time and agreed to postpone the report's publication to give diplomacy a chance to solve the crisis peacefully while Israel kept refusing to apologise." However, when Israel asked to postpone the report for a further six months the request was passed on by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu at the Libya Summit in Paris on 1 September the request was rejected. "We gave Israel a further week to make its mind up," said Erdogan.
"However, the US media leaked the report so Turkey had to act," he added. "That's when we downgraded diplomatic ties and expelled the Israeli ambassador, his deputy and all staff above the rank of Second Secretary."
Other measures included the suspension of military agreements with Israel, mobilising the navy to escort Turkish ships in the eastern Mediterranean and supporting legal cases brought by the Flotilla victims' families against Israel in the international courts.
Did the Israeli military attaché refuse to leave Ankara, I ask. "Yes, but he will be forced to go by diplomatic means, as his rank is above that of the new acceptable level."
When I suggested that having the Turkish navy in eastern Mediterranean harbours raised the stakes and prospects of war to the extent that Turkey's actions caused the Tel Aviv Stock market to crash, the Prime Minister explained the situation in greater detail.
(4) "Israel attacked the Mavi Marmara in international waters with total disregard for international laws and conventions. It treated the Mediterranean as an Israeli lake. We had an obligation, as did the international community, to bring Israel back to its senses. All we said is that our warships will escort Turkish ships in international waters, this is our legitimate right and no one should object to it, but this has angered Israel, which sought to defend its appropriation of international waters in the Middle East."
But couldn't the presence of Turkish ships result in friction with the Israeli navy; couldn't the Israelis try to provoke Turkey into a military confrontation? "This is a possibility, but a remote possibility which is not supported by regional and international conditions; nonetheless, the Turkish navy is ready to deal with all possibilities including the worst case scenarios."
Although Turkey has frozen military agreements with Israel, said Erdogan, "we made no reference to trade relations, which total around$2.5 billion annually". As far as Turkey is concerned, he added, economic relations are supposed to continue as they are even though the recent events have cast a shadow over them. "In addition, we did not take any measure with regard to economic ties with Israel, but it did not deal honestly with us, nor did it commit itself to normal trade ethics."
What does he mean by that? "Turkey bought 6 Israeli drones and paid for them in full when the military agreements between the two countries were in force. These drones needed to be serviced so they were sent to Israel for that purpose. After they were serviced, Israel refused to return them. We did not expect such behaviour as it goes against business ethics accepted in normal trade relations."
(5) We understand Turkey's plan A and plan B, but what about plan C? The Prime Minister thought for a few seconds, and then said that we should not anticipate events. "Plan C depends on Israel's reaction and readiness to accept a fair solution which preserves Turkey's rights and dignity."
What he could say, was that Turkey is committed to four things: "It is our duty to preserve the rights and dignity of the Turkish people, who gave us [the government] their confidence, and to come to the defence of the martyrs' blood that was shed by Israel; we shall do this by standing up to Israeli indifference and arrogance – the Israelis are used to trampling upon international laws and conventions. We insist on achieving our demands through political, diplomatic and legal means. Finally, we are firm on the need to lift the blockade of Gaza as it is a flagrant violation of international law."
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has talked about the desire of his country to mend and improve relations with Turkey, I said, and to my knowledge there are many intermediaries working to mend relations between the two countries. Erdogan interjected: "That's true, but Israel has to apologise first and comply with the conditions we have announced. No one should imagine that Turkey will forfeit the dignity and blood of our people. This is what we have told all intermediaries, for whom we have much respect, I might add." However, he said, when Israel's leaders fail to read the political situation surrounding them, they lose their supporters and friends, even in the United States.
"When former ministers and an intelligence chief say that Netanyahu is a danger to Israel and that he is pushing his country towards further international isolation, this is a significant sign that shows the extent of the negativity caused by Israeli policies and practices which reflect utter contempt for international law and accepted behavioural norms in a civilised world. Turkey cannot keep silent about such behaviour, especially following the killing of our citizens. There has to be a limit to Israel's arrogance."
Fahmy Huwaidi is an Egyptian writer.
Source: Al Jazeera net
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.