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Understanding Turkey’s Policy of Confrontation with Israel

Prime Minister Erdogan has launched a bid for ownership of the Palestinian cause.

by
Jonathan Spyer

Bio

September 16, 2011 - 12:54 pm
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The clash with Israel, however, forms the centerpiece. This is not simply another item on the list of disputes. Opposition to the Jewish state remains the commanding political passion for millions across the Arabic-speaking and broader Muslim world. Turkey has for the last year been engaged in launching a bid for the ownership of the Palestinian cause, knowing it represents the path to popularity in the eyes of the region’s masses, and therefore influence over their rulers.

Turkey’s move toward enmity with Israel is also encapsulated in the image of a ship heading toward Israeli waters. This ship, the Mavi Marmara, carried Islamist activists of the IHH organization, as part of the naval flotilla to Hamas-controlled Gaza, in May 2010. Israel’s killing of nine of them, as they resisted the boarding of their ship, was the moment when the die was cast. Since then, Israel’s relationship with Turkey has been in free fall.

Events are moving fast. The Turkish prime minister was in recent days met by wildly enthusiastic crowds in chaotic Egypt. They chanted “Erdogan! Erdogan! A real Muslim and not a coward,” named him “the new Salah al-Din,” and called for joint Turkish and Egyptian action to end the naval blockade on Gaza.

The media is full of rumors that three Turkish frigates are set to be dispatched to the Mediterranean. Some unconfirmed reports even suggest that they will be authorized to clash with Israeli vessels if aid ships are intercepted in international waters.

We have come a long way from Reliant Mermaid, via the Mavi Marmara, to the prospect of Israeli-Turkish naval clashes. With the region in flux, a new Turkey is looking eastwards. Israel will do all it can to repair relations, but will stand in the defense of its vital interests — as it did in May 2010, and as it has always done.

It will be many years before Turkish sailors, journalists, and officials can toast their Israeli counterparts in friendship again by the blue waters of Haifa Bay. All is changed, changed utterly, as an Irish poet once wrote.

Strange and tumultuous days.

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Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2011).
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