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Turkey-Israel Relations Reassessed in the Wake of Flotilla Raid

  • David Dyar

For nearly two decades the alliance between Turkey and Israel has been a powerful partnership in the Middle East. But the crisis over the Israeli security killing of aid workers delivering humanitarian goods to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip this week, analysts say, could change relations between the two countries. Analysts are examining whether Turkey might be on the verge of a major shift of alliances.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing Israel of committing a bloody massacre on the high seas.

The sharp rhetoric stems from Monday's Israeli raid of an aid convoy headed for Gaza in defiance of an Israeli blockade.

Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish vessel leading the international convoy. During the raid, nine aid workers were killed.

Turkish leaders say relations with Israel have been badly damaged and the prime minister says Israel is on the verge of losing its "best friend" in the region.

Political analyst Nuray Mert of Istanbul University says Turkey's tough words will not go over well in the Middle East. "In terms of leadership, they will feel resentful, of course, because, after all, in the eyes of Arab public opinion, they are collaborators. And Turkey is the one who is advocating the rights of Palestine. Arab leaders, they never actually want each other, let alone Turkey, to play this game," Mert said.

Mert says Mr. Erdogan is heaping further embarrassment on Egypt by pressing the international community to end the embargo against Gaza. Egypt, along with Israel, enforces the embargo. Observers say Cairo's secular leadership is deeply suspicious of the pro-Islamic Hamas leadership in Gaza. But analysts say Turkey's government has no such concerns. It won praise among large sections of Arab public opinion by inviting one of the leaders of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, for talks in Ankara in 2006 after his party's victory in Gaza elections.

Turkish government adviser Gokhan Cetinsayar says that until now, Turks have been viewed with suspicion by many Arabs because the Middle East was once part of the Ottoman Empire. "In classical Arab nationalist discourse, Turkey is a negative actor in the region; [it] is the old imperialist power for Arab nationalists. But new regional circumstances, new regional balances, allow Turkey to play such a role," he said.

Analysts say the Turkish prime minister appears to be trying to place himself in a role as a Middle East leader. But, they say, this role appears to come at the cost of Turkey's relationship with Israel.

For nearly two decades, Turkey has built a strategic political and military alliance with Israel. And in recent years, it has played a mediating role between Israel and other Middle East countries like Syria.

But analyst Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University says the present crisis has changed that. "Probably the worst casualty will [be] this -- peace and mediation efforts of Turkey, involving directly and indirectly Israel. I think these peace and mediation efforts are dead forever. And now, Turkey will appear 100 percent next to the Palestinians cause," he said.

Eight of the nine killed during the Israeli flotilla raid were Turks, which is increasing public pressure on Turkey's leaders to sever ties with Israel. President Abdullah Gul has warned that relations will never be the same again. And the Turkish parliament has called for a review of bilateral relations.

But Turkish political columnist Soli Ozel says Prime Minister Erdogan might be trying to avoid damaging long-term relations with Israel. "I was interested in seeing that the prime minister was insisting that it was the current government that was unworkable and making the distinction between Israel the state and Israel the government, and especially this government. And so this leaves the door open, if the government changes. Obviously, there will be room for amelioration in relations," he said.

Analysts say Mr. Erdogan's advocating the Palestinian cause and aligning himself more with Arab leaders will play well with his party's grassroots supporters. But they say the prime minister also knows that, in the long run, maintaining ties with Israel gives it a unique voice in Jerusalem as well as Washington -- something, analysts say, Mr. Erdogan might be reluctant to give up.