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Turkey-Israel relations take a downward turn

January 28, 2014 at 4:38 am

By Omar Radwan

The relationship between Turkey and Israel, which was severely tested following Israel’s assault against the Gaza Strip one year ago, has deteriorated yet further in the past few days. Last Friday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul met with his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, and the two leaders agreed to resume “positive and stable” relations between the two countries. However, on Monday, at a joint press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, the Turkish Prime Minister denounced Israel’s ongoing incursions into Lebanon’s airspace, saying that they were an “unacceptable action that threatens global peace”. Recep Tayyip Erdogan then went on to condemn Israel over its latest airstrike against Gaza, asking the Israelis, “What is your excuse this time?” He summed up his country’s new attitude to Israel by saying, “We can never remain silent in the face of Israel’s attitude… It has disproportionate power and it is using that at will while refusing to abide by UN resolutions. We can never accept this picture.” Mr. Erdogan called on the UN Security Council to deal with Israel over its nuclear weapons in the same way that it deals with Iran regarding its alleged nuclear ambitions.

Israel is now being covered negatively in the Turkish popular media. Last October, the Zionist state complained to Turkey over a television series called Ayrilik (Separation). A love story set during Israel’s war against Gaza, the show depicted Israeli soldiers killing Palestinian children gratuitously and beating up elderly Palestinians. A new episode of another television show, Kurtlar Vadisi (Valley of the Wolves), showed Mossad secret agents kidnapping Turkish children and taking hostage the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv. This prompted yet another complaint from Israel. Ironically, given the content of the episode, the Turkish ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, was called this week to the office of the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, and deliberately humiliated. Ayalon refused to shake hands with the ambassador and, following instructions from his superior, said in Hebrew to journalists covering the event, “Pay attention that he is sitting in a lower chair and we are in the higher ones, that there is only an Israeli flag on the table and that we are not smiling.” This had been done on the express instructions of Israel’s Foreign Minister, the extremist Avigdor Lieberman and was actually reported in the Israeli media. Lieberman’s ministry also issued a condemnation of Prime Minister Erdogan’s “unbridled” comments, saying that “Turkey is in no position to preach morality to Israel or to the Israel Defence Forces”.

These are only the latest incidents in a year which has seen a sharp rise in tension between the countries. While many observers point to the Islamist roots of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and suggest that therein lie the reason for the deterioration in relations; supporters of Israel claim simply that the AKP is anti-Semitic. However, the true origins of the quarrel lie in Israel’s war against Gaza.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera shortly after the war began, Mr. Erdogan said that he felt personally betrayed by Israel, having previously been assured by the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that no such escalation would take place. Mr. Erdogan said in no uncertain terms that Israel, not Hamas, was to blame for the war. Just five days before the war, he had been mediating a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. In a meeting with Mr. Olmert in Turkey, he had proposed sending a plane to Syria to pick up President Bashar al-Assad for direct negotiations. Even though this plan was abandoned, Mr. Erdogan had the feeling that real progress was being made. The war against Gaza shattered his illusions and called an abrupt halt to the Turkish-mediated indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel. The Prime Minister’s fury with the Israelis reflected the mood of his people, who came out in numerous demonstrations against the Gaza war. Shortly afterwards Mr. Erdogan famously argued with Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, telling him directly, “You are killing children” and vowing never to return to Davos. In September, the Turkish foreign minister cancelled a trip to Israel because the Israelis refused to let him visit the Gaza Strip and, one month later, Turkey cancelled joint exercises between the Turkish, Italian, American and Israeli air forces, known as “Anatolian Eagle”, because Israel was to participate in them; the fact that the Israeli aircraft had bombed civilians in Gaza was given as the reason.

Turkey and Israel have a long history of highly secretive military cooperation, which Turkish commentators call “the Ghostly Alliance”. This began with the visit of the first Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, to Ankara in 1958. In 1996, the two countries signed an agreement allowing Israeli pilots to train in Turkish airspace. This made headlines in Turkey after the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000 because the same pilots were bombing Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In return for the use of its airspace, Turkey received hi-tech military equipment from Israel that it had been unable to acquire from the United States, including Harpy anti-radar drones. However, the Israelis have recently noticed that the Turkish military’s power over the country’s civilian leadership has declined and military cooperation between the two countries has been faltering, with Israel delaying or defaulting on the delivery of purchased weapons. Umit Enginsoy, a Turkish expert on military affairs, believes that no new defence industry deals are expected in the foreseeable future.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak will be visiting Ankara on Sunday, where he will meet his Turkish counterpart and foreign minister. However, this visit has already been sabotaged by the antics organised by Avigdor Lieberman at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The Turkish ambassador says that his meeting with Ayalon was “the most shameful display he had seen in 35 years as a diplomat” and the Turks have demanded an apology. Lieberman, however, is now seeking to recall the Israeli ambassador to Turkey and says that Israel will never accept Turkish mediation in negotiations with Syria. It seems that relations between Turkey and Israel have soured permanently because of Israel’s war against Gaza and there is now a deep antipathy towards Israel within Turkish society. The statements and actions of Prime Minister Erdogan’s government reflect the mood of the Turkish people. This is a part of the growing isolation of Israel in the world community because of its crimes against the Palestinian people.

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