Osama Al-Sharif
Arab News (Opinion)
June 9, 2010 - 12:00am

Scores from different nationalities were also injured in the raid, some of them seriously. The angry reaction from Ankara to the notorious commando raid, in international waters, has not subsided. On the contrary, there is a calculated and consistent escalation by Turkey against Israel, which is slowly gathering regional and international momentum. The end game remains uncertain, but the repercussions of the Turkey-Israel crisis could prove costly - for both.

Few doubt that Israel now finds itself in a predicament of its own doing. The naval fiasco has triggered controversy even inside Israel. Aside from the denouncements, condemnations and demands that an independent international probe into the incident take place, there is mounting pressure on the Netanyahu government to lift the three-year-old blockade of Gaza, or yield to a new regime of inspection, by a third party, of goods going into the stricken strip. Israel has rejected both.

But now even its closest allies are admitting that the siege is unacceptable. Inside Israel more voices are calling on the government to abandon its Gaza policy, which in their view has failed to deliver results and has only damaged the country’s standing. The Netanyahu government is likely to suffer whatever its final decision will be. The extreme right will regard any concession as a sell-out while the moderate camp will use it to reposition itself politically and launch a fresh bid for power through early elections. Maintaining the status quo is no option.

But it is Turkey, under the strong leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which now has the initiative. Erdogan has not wavered from his head-on assault against Israeli policies in Gaza and toward the Palestinians. On Monday he told visiting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad that Israel would pay for its crime. His Foreign Minister Ahmad Davutoglu has been equally vociferous, reiterating Turkey’s demands that Israel’s criminal attack against the peace flotilla be fully and independently investigated and that the Gaza siege be lifted immediately.

Both men spoke in Istanbul on Monday, at the opening of a conference on Security and Economic Cooperation in Eurasia in the 21st Century. Both were unrelenting. Their statements were made following almost a week of daily demonstrations in Istanbul where thousands of angry Turks continued to denounce Israel and its crimes against the Palestinians.

Turkey’s regional influence has been growing incrementally for years. Its relationship with Israel has been strained for some time, mainly over the latter’s war on Gaza last year and now over the bloody interception of an aid ship bearing a Turkish flag. As a result, Israel has lost a key regional ally. A strategic treaty has been put on ice and joint military exercises have been cancelled. President Abdullah Gul has said that bilateral relations will never go back to what they used to be.

There is no doubt that Israeli actions are responsible for the sudden and precipitous deterioration in relations with Turkey. But it is also fair to say that the political transformation of Turkey, since the victory of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, a moderate Islamist party, and the adoption of a new foreign policy doctrine by Ankara, have all contributed to the present rift.

Under Erdogan Turkey has been opening up to its Asian neighbors, pursuing a policy of détente, regional cooperation, security and crisis management. This has been evident in Turkey’s reconciliation with Syria, Greece, Armenia, Iraq and Iran, among others. Last month Ankara played a pivotal role in securing Tehran’s approval of an agreement to swap its nuclear fuel and store it in Turkey. For some time it tried to mediate between Syria and Israel, and more recently it had attempted to bring about an end to the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority. In addition to this, it is building strong ties with Central Asian countries, where tens of millions are rediscovering their Turkish roots.

Turkey’s rising economic strength, the fact that it is a NATO member, a close ally of the United States and enjoys special ties with the EU qualify it as a world power. But its latest confrontation with Israel will not endear it to pro-Zionist media and politicians, especially in the US.

Already the pro-Israel US media counterattack has begun. Erdogan is being vilified by columnists and commentators who take their cue from the Israeli lobby in Washington and others. Writing last week in The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page, Robert Pollock headlined his article, “Erdogan and the decline of the Turks”. Belittling the Turks for not speaking an Indo-European language while sitting at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Pollock says “to follow Turkish discourse in recent years has been to follow a national decline into madness.” He then adds that “what information most of them get is filtered through a secular press that makes Italian communists look right wing by comparison and an increasing number of state (i.e., Islamist) influenced outfits. Topics A and B (or B and A, it doesn’t really matter) have been the malign influence on the world of Israel and the United States.”

He then goes on to portray Erdogan, whom he had interviewed several times, as either a simpleton or an extremist or both. His deduction is that Erdogan “and his party have traded on America and Israel hatred” for years. He also believes that Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s philosophy calls on Turkey to loosen Western ties to the US, NATO and the European Union and seek its own sphere of influence to the East.

This, of course, is total rubbish. I have interviewed Davutoglu in Amman last summer and he never once said that Turkey’s opening up to the East was to be at the expense of its relationship with the West. As an undersecretary of Davutoglu told members of the press few days ago in Istanbul, Turkey’s aim remains to join the EU and to have an active regional role.

But Pollock’s poisonous rancor is exactly the kind of diatribe that we should expect from friends of Israel and Islamophobic pundits in the West. Sooner or later Erdogan will have to face accusations of anti-Semitism and Islamic radicalism. Even when Turkey is united today in its hostility toward Israel, Erdogan must be vigilant. He has challenged Israel and he should expect a reaction both domestically and internationally.

In spite of the recent crisis with Israel, it is not clear where Turkey and its leaders will finally draw the line. That depends on many factors; chief among them is Washington’s attitude toward the Netanyahu government, its position on an independent probe and on lifting the Gaza siege. There is, of course, the Arab role in all of this and so far it has been muted and shy.


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