Turkey's hardline stance on Israel just tip of the iceberg

Turkey’s expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, the downgrading of its diplomatic relations with Israel and increasingly firm position on the Israeli attack on the ship Mavi Marmara signifies more than a temporary hiccup in Turkish-Israeli relations.

Ankara has rejected the United Nations’s Palmer Commission report—which justified the Israeli blockade of Gaza, but accused Israel of using “excessive force” against the aid flotilla—and plans to take the case against the blockade to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

In addition, this week’s visit to Egypt by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, can be seen as indicating his support for the emerging democratic process in Egypt, in which public anger at Israel runs high, and his solidarity with the killing of five Egyptian security personnel by the Israelis in Sinai.

Erdogan’s announcement that he intends visiting Gaza further indicates that Turkey is ratcheting up support for the Palestinian cause, especially before the UN vote on Palestinian statehood.

The Turkish mood was summed up by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu: “The time has come for Israel to pay a price for its illegal action.
The price, first of all, is being deprived of Turkey’s friendship.”

Davutoglu has indicated that an apology for the flotilla attack and compensation for the dead and wounded could restore normal diplomatic ties, but Erdogan has made it clear that Israel must end its naval blockade of Gaza for this to happen.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insists that Israel will not apologise, a stance that may be dictated by coalition politics, but which has created a diplomatic impasse. The United States’s Obama administration, worried about the ramifications of a major rift between Israel and Turkey for US strategic interests, but afraid of taking on the Netanyahu government for domestic reasons, has put no pressure on Israel. It risks alienating Turkey, a crucial member of Nato.

Important implications
This diplomatic episode has important implications for the future of the Middle East. First, it demonstrates that Israeli dominance of the eastern Mediterranean will no longer go unchallenged. Erdogan has made it clear that the Turkish navy will play a more active role in the area and Turkish sources suggest that it may even escort flotillas carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. Any future attempt by Israel to prevent aid from reaching Gaza could spark a military confrontation.

Second, it demonstrates that Israel’s defiance of international law, especially in its treatment of the occupied territories, faces increasing challenge in international forums. A referral to the ICJ will bring to the fore Israel’s violation of the fourth Geneva convention that prohibits the demographic transformation of occupied lands and its responsibility for the welfare of the occupied population.

The West Bank settlements will again become a topic of heated debate, which will emphasise that the Obama formula of land swaps, in which Israel would keep major Jewish settlements even if a two-state solution was reached, contravenes international law. This, combined with Palestinian efforts to have the UN recognise a Palestinian state, will heighten the region’s volatility.

Third, the Turkish stance, following democratic uprisings in the region, will further align Turkey with mainstream Arab opinion on Palestine and Israeli occupation, boosting its standing in the Arab world and putting increasing pressure on Arab governments to take a more active role on the issues in the area. Countries in democratic transition are already under domestic pressure to take a harder line on Israel and there is talk of Egypt and Jordan withdrawing their ambassadors, following Turkey’s example.

Fourth, the current Turkish position would have not been possible without the consolidation of Turkish democracy. The elected government can finally pursue its policies without fear of military intervention. The military’s top brass, who have a close relationship with their Israeli counterparts, have long been Turkey’s primary pro-Israel constituency and a hard line against Israel would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Finally, this episode signifies the coming of age of Turkey as a strategic power connecting the Middle East with Europe, the West and the Muslim world. It calls for a major revamp of America’s policy. A just and speedy solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is essential if the US is to preserve its strategic interests in the Middle East.

Washington must reassess its unconditional support for Israel and adopt a visible even-handed policy, including a softening of its position on Palestine’s bid for statehood.—

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