Last night, Turkey blatantly interfered in Israel’s domestic politics through a televised message relayed to the conference of the Islamic Movement being held in the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm.
In a statement, delivered on behalf of Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül, his advisor stated that “The Freedom Flotilla demonstrates the strong links between us. Together we shall guard the holy places. Your brothers in Turkey will always extend their hand to you to protect the Al-Aqsa Mosque and all the holy places in Jerusalem.”
His remarks should be viewed in the context of continuing claims by Sheik Ra’ad Salah, leader of the northern faction of the Islamic Movement, that Israel plans to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and rebuild the Temple on the site. Salah, who is currently serving a prison sentence for attacking a policeman, is also reported to have declared that Jerusalem will soon become the capital of an Islamic nation.
Up until two years ago, Israel enjoyed a close military and strategic relationship with Turkey. It expressed itself, among other things, in joint naval and air force exercises, the upgrading and modernizing of Turkish tanks and aircraft using Israeli technical facilities, and close ties between the two governments and their respective secret services. (It should be noted that the Turkish Armed Forces is the second largest standing armed force in NATO after the United States.)
Bilateral trade between the two countries officially amounted to about $3 billion in 2009. However, Israeli and Turkish business leaders say the economic ties are considerably larger.
While trade links continue apace, the election of Recep Erdoğan’s AK party in 2007, which received 46.6% of the vote, represented a watershed in relations between the two countries. Although Prime Minister Erdoğan claims that the AKP “is not a political party with a religious axis”, its critics believe that it has a hidden agenda that threatens the secular character of Turkey as conceived by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president.
Most Israelis only became aware of the deteriorating relationship between the two countries when Erdoğan stormed out of a televised debate with President Shimon Peres during the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009.
Peres had taken the opportunity to try to justify the Israeli incursion into the Hamas held Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead. Before stomping off the stage in anger at not being given sufficient time to respond, Erdoğan remonstrated: “You are killing people.” (Earlier the Turkish Prime Minister had delivered an address describing Gaza as an “open-air prison”.)
Until then, Turkey had been the favourite holiday destination for Israelis, drawing some 580,000 of them in 2008. Since the Davos episode, they have chosen to punish Turkey with their wallets. Tourist figures for 2010 are down by 90%.
Naturally, Erdoğan’s strong condemnation of Israel has been well received in the Arab world, where Turkey is vying with Iran for leadership and influence.
The boarding of the Mavi Marmara, which resulted in the death of five Turkish citizens, has only served to exacerbate hostility between Turkey and Israel with the former demanding an apology and compensation for deaths and injuries resulting from the incident. Israel’s refusal to apologize is reported to have resulted in the cancellation of a meeting between Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gül, and President Peres at the current UN General Assembly. (Peres’ office has denied that such a meeting was ever intended.)
Meantime, President Gül still found time to meet with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss the strengthening of ties between their two countries.
While Israelis hope that the cooling in relations is only a passing phase, the creeping islamicization of Turkey would seem to suggest otherwise.