While Americans have focused their attention on a number of domestic issues, things have been going downhill fast between Turkey and Israel. The “Arab Spring” looks to be followed by an Islamist winter, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan wants to be Old Man Winter. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has even gone so far as to warn Erdogan not to muscle in on their action.
It didn’t take long for Turkey to go bad after it was pulled from the fridge of secular rule, and left on the countertop of Erdogan’s Islamist party. Erdogan views the recent United Nations report on Israel’s action against blockade runners as a pretext to begin a round of dangerous posturing that has brought Turkey dangerously close to the brink of war.
Erdogan told Al-Jazeera television in a recent interview that the Israeli raid, which killed eight Turks and a Turkish American on board a Turkish ship trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, occurred in international waters and was “unlawful.” His comments were carried by Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency late Sunday.
“It is a cause for war, but we decided to act in line with Turkey’s grandeur and showed patience,” Erdogan said.
Once he arrived in Cairo, he said this:
Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed the deteriorating Israeli-Turkish ties in a speech to Arab foreign ministers in Cairo. He said Israel has isolated itself and must “pay the price.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “The conditions we have set are still in effect and must be met in order for Turkish-Israeli relations to return to normal. So long as Israel does not apologize, so long as they do not pay reparations to the victims’ families, so long as they do not lift their naval blockade of Gaza, Turkish-Israeli relations will not return to normal.”
This isn’t just the belligerent white noise that normally fills the air of the Middle East. Turkey has already suspended military ties with Israel, expelled her diplomats, and declared support for Palestinian statehood – which amounts to the forcible seizure of a big chunk of Israeli land, right in the middle of that tiny nation. Now comes word that Turkish warships are preparing to escort the next flotilla of blockade runners to Gaza and “confront” the Israeli navy:
The Turkish Navy is planning to dispatch three frigates to the Eastern Mediterranean to ensure freedom of navigation and to confront Israeli warships if necessary, a Turkish news report said on Monday.
The Turkish frigates, to be dispatched by the Navy’s Southern Sea Area Command, will provide protection to civilian ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, blockaded by Israel since 2007, the Turkish daily Sabah reported. If the Turkish warships encounter an Israeli military ship outside Israel’s 12-mile territorial waters, they will advance up to 100 meters close to the ship and disable its weapon system, in a confrontation that resembles dogfights in the Aegean Sea with Greek jet fighters, according to the report.
The report comes days after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkish warships will escort civilian aid ships headed to Gaza to prevent a repetition of last year’s Israeli raid on a Turkish-owned ship that killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American, setting the stage for a potential naval confrontation with its former ally.
Erdogan is stubbornly insisting that the Israeli blockade of Gaza, intended to prevent weapons shipments from reaching Palestinian terrorists, is “illegal,” even though the U.N. report specifically stated otherwise. “The barrier to peace in the region is the mentality of the Israeli government,” he said in Cairo. “The people in Israel are under a blockade.” He described the establishment of a Palestinian state as “not an option but an obligation.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to play it cool while Erdogan ratchets up the rhetoric. “I recommend not getting lured into making all kinds of remarks,” Netanyahu said. “I think that common sense and cool-headedness will prevail eventually, hopefully, on both sides.”
However, after noticing how little the authorities in Cairo did to stop the assault on the Israeli embassy, Netanyahu described the incident as doing “severe damage to the fabric of peace.” Just wait until a Turkish frigate fires on an Israeli naval vessel to protect the next terror flotilla. That should do wonders for the fabric of peace.
Writing for CNN, Washington Institute Senior Fellow for Near East Policy Soner Cagaptay notes there are economic forces motivating Erdogan’s brinksmanship, as well as political and religious forces:
The specter of conflict also hangs over gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey objects to Israel’s desire to drill in its exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean Sea largely because it hopes to block the Greek Cypriots from having the precedent of an exclusive economic zone in which they could drill for gas to the detriment of the Turkish Cypriots. The latest escalation between Turkey and Israel might just pour oil on the political flames of gas exploration in the Mediterranean Sea.
Perhaps Ankara is only bluffing to bring Israel to its knees, and perhaps the Israelis would rather let Turkish navy-escorted flotillas sail to Gaza than risk regional war. But one thing is clear: The Arab Spring and the Turkish-Israeli Winter are churning up the Mediterranean.
The title of Cagaptay’s essay is “Could Israel and Turkey Go To War?” At this hour, the answer is: maybe. Considering the history of warmer relations between the two nations, and the ominous pressures gathering against Israel from other quarters, that’s a lousy answer.