The Gaza Flotilla Tragedy was Predictable and Preventable
ANKARA -- The Gaza flotilla tragedy is a major blow to what remained of Turkey-Israel relations--not least because it was both predictable and preventable. Israel's boarding of a Turkish civilian maritime vessel, which ended with the death of eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American, naturally created a very strong and unanimous reaction against Israel in Turkey. From the Turkish perspective, the way the Israeli government has chosen to deal with the crisis has made other details irrelevant. However, it is worth discussing how we got here and where we are heading now.
The relationship between Turkey and Israel, once close allies, started to deteriorate during 2006 when Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party hosted a Hamas delegation headed by Khalid Mashal at the party headquarters in Ankara. Turkey had just started to build its new foreign policy approach - defined as "zero problems with neighbors" - to engage all actors in its neighborhood, including Hamas. Hamas, which was just another difficult actor for Turkey to engage, was a terrorist organization and a deadly enemy for Israel. The tension between the two allies peaked during the 2008-09 Gaza War and the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. Just before the Gaza War began, Turkey was trying to intermediate between Israel and Syria to facilitate a lasting peace in the Middle East. Turkey was one of the few actors that could talk to both Israelis and Syrians on an equal footing. The Gaza War triggered the events that would change this.
At the time, Turkish leaders criticized the way Israel fought the Gaza War and the Gaza blockade with very strong language. But it was the outburst by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a session with Israeli President Simon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, when analysts seriously began to worry about whether Turkish-Israeli cooperation could be sustained. This was an alliance of necessity for both sides, although increasingly less so for Turkey, and most analysts argued that despite an increasingly skeptical public opinion and a clash at the political level, cooperation at the technical and military levels would continue, which it did, more or less. Nonetheless, in October 2009, Turkey cancelled a part of the Anatolian Eagle exercise in which the Israeli Air Force was to participate. At a time when anti-Israel rhetoric - mixed with a dose of anti-Semitism - was on the rise in Turkey, Israel's reaction came in the form of a disturbing diplomatic gesture. Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, summoned the Turkish ambassador to complain about a TV show. The ambassador was forced to sit on a low sofa without a handshake while Ayalon explained to local TV stations that the humiliation was intentional. Outraged, Turkey threatened to recall the ambassador. A few days later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said a letter of apology had been written, and that the premier hoped"this will end the affair." It did end that specific affair, but storm clouds were in full view on the horizon. When two countries trust each other, potential crises can be prevented before they become apparent to a larger public. Where trust has eroded--as had become the case between Turkey and Israel--even a small spark can start a fire. Preparations for the "Free Gaza Flotilla" had started several months ago when the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) acquired the Mavi Marmara Ship from the Municipality of Istanbul. Both Israel and Turkey knew for a long time that it was coming. This was not just an ordinary aid flotilla; it was a gesture of civil disobedience by several hundred volunteers from 32 different countries to increase awareness about the Gaza blockade and to make it less sustainable for Israel. While the flotilla did not have official Turkish government support, it did have political and moral support. For its part, Israel made it as clear as possible that it would use any means to stop the flotilla from reaching Gaza. Meanwhile, the flotilla volunteers insisted that they would go to Gaza at any cost.
At this point, it was clear that these two were bound for conflict. This was a predictable and preventable tragedy; all it would have required was better dialogue between Turkey and Israel, dialogue that unfortunately had ceased. Turkey is a polarized society. An old line is that wherever there are two Turks; there are at least three different opinions on any issue. And, lately, there have been questions over the harmony and coordination of institutions in Turkey. But Turks from every social, political, ethnic, and religious background joined in their condemnation of Israel's boarding of the Mavi Marmara. Moreover, all political leaders and government institutions in Turkey worked in close coordination and harmony. That said, it is important to note that the official reaction of Turkey was directed not toward Jews, not toward Israelis, and not toward the State of Israel, but toward the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Turkey used active diplomacy to get the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council to issue declarations condemning Israel's action. A similar declaration is expected from NATO. No matter how much the two countries need each other, cooperation between Turkey and Israel will now be very difficult. Even more seriously, there appears to be little provision against the risk that the two former allies remain exposed to such incidents in the future.
Ozgur Unluhisarcilki is the director of GMF's Ankara office.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.