Turkey, until only recently one of the few secular, economically vibrant democracies in the Muslim world, has been in a tailspin for some time.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s forceful prime minister, several years ago began backsliding on secularism. Once that pebble began rolling down the hill, it grabbed with it chunks of the other indicia of democracy, such as press freedom and the right to peaceful protests.
There are now more jailed journalists in Turkey than anywhere else in the world.
When peaceful protests broke out against the government last spring in Teksim Gezi Park, and again throughout the fall and winter, the Turkish government’s startlingly harsh response was closer to what happens in Iran or Russia, than in the western democracies Turkey has been compared to over the past several decades.
Erdoğan’s internal political difficulties include a widespread governmental corruption probe, a plummeting economy and an open feud with a very powerful former ally, Fethullah Gülen.
Turkey’s growing derailment has drawn down with it the formerly positive relations between Israel and Turkey.
Recent hopeful-sounding hints at renewed positive relations between Israel and Turkey were just dashed again by Turkey’s leader.
On Tuesday, Erdoğan publicly stated that Turkey will never normalize relations with Israel so long as Israel maintains its blockade of Gaza.
“As long as the siege on Gaza isn’t lifted, it [an agreement] won’t happen,” Erdoğan told reporters at an Istanbul press conference on Tuesday, Feb. 11. “The siege must be lifted and that must be part of the protocol, signed and agreed upon.”
WHAT HAPPENED BETWEEN THE TWO ALLIES
The chill between the two former allies, Israel and Turkey, first went public over Turkey’s support for a breach of Israel’s lawful naval blockade of Gaza.
That came to a head on May 31, 2010, when Israeli naval commandos boarded the Turkish Mavi Marmara, a flotilla run by the Turkish “charity” the IHH, on which pro-Palestinian Arabs were attempting to breach that naval blockade. The Israelis landed on the deck of the ship, seeking to peacefully convince the protesters to change directions and deposit any charitable goods they hoped to deliver to Gaza, via an Israeli port. Those goods could then be transported legally over land to the border entrance into Gaza.
Instead, as was captured on film and in photographs, the hostile Mavi Marmara crew attacked the Israelis with metal rods and other dangerous weapons. Israel Defense Force troops were forced to defend their colleagues using live fire. Nine Turkish protesters died in the clashes and 10 Israelis were wounded.
Weapons found on board the Mavi Marmara on May 31, 2010
Turkey blamed Israel for the violence, and withdrew its ambassador from Israel, then expelled Israel’s ambassador to Turkey. Hostilities between the two countries has been pronounced since then.
But when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Israel in the spring of 2013, he persuaded Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to apologize to Erdoğan in a telephone call. After lengthy persuasive discussions between the two allies, Netanyahu agreed that Israel would pay Turkey compensation for the Turks who died on the Mavi Marmara.
On Sunday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu gave an interview that suggested the thaw was nearly complete.
“We are living through a period where our relationship is closest to normalizing since Mavi Marmara,” Davutoglu told a Turkish television station. “We’re in touch for a final meeting, compensation will be another step and there may be concrete developments to get aid to Gaza and Palestine.”
But Erdoğan, whose criticism of Israel seems as reflexive as those of other intractable haters of the Jews, consistently blames Israel for all kinds of unacceptable (to him) situations. He blamed former Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi’s ouster, in part, on Israel, and he blamed the widespread Turkish protests in June, in part, on Israel. It will be a terrible thing if there is an outbreak of some dreaded disease in Turkey, but no doubt should that happen, Erdoğan would also blame that on Israel.
Erdoğan’s very close relationship with the ousted Egyptian President and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamad Morsi helps to explain the Turkish leader’s strong interest in assisting Gaza, which is run by Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot.
It is highly unlikely Israel will agree to relax the blockade of Gaza, for several reasons. The most important one of which is that there is no such thing as a relaxed blockade. A legal blockade, and the international community has deemed Israel’s blockade of Gaza to be legal, so only as long as there is not a single breach. Once breached, a legal blockade becomes illegal.
An additional reason Israel must not relax the naval blockade is the only reason there is one in the first place: without it, weapons smuggling into Gaza from countries and regimes hostile to Israel would pour in. Those weapons, very bad and only worse, would reasonably be expected to be used in an attempt to destroy Israel.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus