Israel’s deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship has ignited unprecedented anger in Turkey and driven the Jewish state’s relations with its most important Muslim ally to their lowest point in six decades.
There are signs, however, that the countries’ long-term strategic alliance and military ties will endure.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan furiously told parliament Tuesday that the “bloody massacre” of at least four Turkish activists among nine passengers slain by Israeli naval commandos was a turning point in the long-standing alliance.
“Nothing will be the same again,” Erdogan said, gesturing angrily, his voice shaking at times.
Thousands of Turks staged protests across the country and pockets of demonstrators shouted “down with Israel!” on streets near the Israeli ambassador’s well-protected residence — an unusual sight in one of the capital’s most affluent districts.
Pro-Islamic daily Yeni Safak newspaper described the Israeli troops as “The children of Hitler,” in a banner headline.
But other officials were delivering messages of restraint and Turkey said it was not canceling plans to accept $183 million (euro150.56 million) worth of Israeli drone planes this summer.
“We will find a solution within law and diplomacy,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Monday. “No one should expect us to declare war on Israel over this.”
Turkey’s eight-year-old Islamic-rooted government has publicly and frequently expressed outrage over Israel’s 2008-2009 war in Gaza and continuing blockade of the strip. But Turkey’s deeply secular military remains heavily dependent on high-tech Israeli arms in its battle against Kurdish separatist guerrillas based along Turkey’s mountainous southeastern border with Iraq.
Israel’s right-leaning government said that the countries’ defense ministers had agreed hours after the raid that the incident wouldn’t affect Israeli weapons sales to Turkey.
The massive Heron drones to be delivered this summer can fly at least 20 hours nonstop and first saw action against Hamas militants in the Gaza war. Turkey hopes they can gather crucial intelligence on Kurdish rebels and allow pinpoint strikes at a time of escalating insurgent attacks. Israel also recently completed a more than $1 billion upgrade of Turkey’s aging tank fleet and U.S.-made F-4 warplanes. Turkey has opened its airspace to Israeli pilots for training purposes.
“There are still common interests, common needs,” said Ofra Bengio, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center. “For the time being, we’re in the middle of a crisis…but governments change.”
Erdogan held a meeting with the military’s second-ranking general, the defense minister and national intelligence chief that ended minutes before his speech and another key security meeting was scheduled for Wednesday. His speech, while heated, notably shied from proclaiming a broader change in Turkish policy toward Israel.
“Lying has become state policy for Israel and it knows no shame for the crimes it has committed, he said. “From now on, it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye on the lawless behavior of the current Israeli government.”
Ordinary Turks of all classes and political beliefs are incensed, and there are widespread calls for a tougher response than Turkey scrapping three joint army and navy exercises and pulling its ambassador to Israel.
“I would like to see a harsher Turkish government reaction in the face of such an attack against Turkish people,” said Ali Goktas, an 18-year-old air conditioner repairman. “It was inhumane.”
Turkish/Israeli ties have flourished since the signing of military cooperation agreements in 1996 but they date decades to the founding of the Jewish state.
Founded on secular principles and intensely focused in recent decades on closer ties with the West, Turkey welcomed Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during the World War II and was among the first Muslim countries to recognize Israel in 1948.
Bilateral trade stands around $2.6 billion — roughly one percent of Turkey’s overall trade — and Israeli have given crucial support in recent years to Turkey’s efforts to prevent the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I from being labeled a genocide.
“The relations are based on mutual trust and I don’t think they are permanently damaged,” said Mahfi Egilmez, an analyst with NTV television. “The relations can improve when there is a new government in Israel or when the Gaza conflict is solved.”
Organized by the Istanbul-based Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief under the unofficial auspices of the Turkish government, the flotilla was the ninth attempt by sea to breach the three-year-old blockade of Gaza. Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after the violent 2007 seizure by Hamas militants of Gaza, home to 1.5 million Palestinians. Israel allowed five seaborne aid shipments to get through but snapped the blockade shut after the 2008-2009 war.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said four Turkish citizens were confirmed slain by the Israeli commandos and another five were also believed to be Turks, although Israeli authorities were still trying to confirm their nationalities. Turkey sent planes to pick up the wounded after refusing an Israeli offer to bring them home.
Turkey called for emergency meetings of the United Nations Security Council and NATO to condemn the killings. But Turkey’s representative to NATO did not demand that the alliance take collective action against Israel, according to a diplomat who attended the talks. The official asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Turkey’s Islamic-rooted administration has been increasingly assertive diplomatically in the Middle East in recent years, backing Iran’s attempts to quash new U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program and trying to mediate Israeli talks with Syria, which demands the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Golan Heights as a condition for peace.
Relations with Israel’s year-old government and have been deteriorating steadily since Israel’s Gaza war.
Erdogan walked off the stage last year after berating Israel’s President Shimon Peres at an international gathering in Davos, Switzerland, over the war in Gaza — an action that boosted Erdogan’s image in the Muslim world.
In January, Turkish Ambassador Oguz Celikkol was not greeted with a handshake and was forced to sit on a low sofa during a meeting in Israel with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who later apologized.
Arinc, the deputy prime minister, said Turkey would launch legal action in a Turkish court against Israel over the deadly raid. Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told The Associated Press that he will not order the recall of the Israeli ambassador to Turkey, saying “I have no intention of worsening relations.”
Lieberman said Israel would seek common ground with Turkey to preserve stability.
Associated Press writers Ceren Kumova in Ankara, Karoun Demirjian in Jerusalem and Desmond Butler in Washington contributed to this report.