In May 2010, Israel's Gaza Freedom Flotilla Mavi Marmara mother ship attack, killing nine Turkish citizens, stoked tensions between the two countries.
At the time, Turkey warned it might sever diplomatic relations unless Israel apologized, consented to an independent international investigation, and ended its Gaza siege.
Israel, however, refused and stonewalled. Frayed ties followed. In fact, they began deteriorating earlier in the new millennium despite years of closer military, economic, political, technological, cultural, academic, and practical relations.
The 1993 Oslo Accords, in fact, facilitated them based on (false) notions that Israel sought peace. Even so, relations were less than entirely cordial. Underlying tensions persisted that grew as peace proved illusive, Israel choosing confrontation that erupted during the September 2000 Al-Aqsa (second) Intifada.
At the time, then Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit criticized Israel harshly. The 2003 Iraq war also caused friction, positioning both countries on separate sides. Israel favored eliminating a regional rival. Turkey wanted the status quo, opposing Iraq's partitioning and establishment of a de facto Kurdistan on its border.
Israel's preemptive 2006 Lebanon war caused more tensions. So did Cast Lead from December 27, 2008 - January 18, 2009, inflicting mass casualties and destruction. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, in fact, accused Israel of war crimes, including using illegal terror weapons like white phosphorous, saying:
"No one can claim that phosphorous shells are not weapons of mass destruction," exaggerating to make a point.
He also condemns Israel's lawless Lebanese overflights, sometimes at low altitudes, calling them "unacceptable action(s) threaten(ing) global peace." Moreover, he denounces regular Gazan air attacks and ground incursions, asking at one time:
"Is the Israeli government in favor of peace or not? Gaza was bombed again yesterday. Why? There were no rocket attacks. (Israel has) disproportional capabilities and power and (it) use(s) them. They do not abide by UN resolutions. They say they will do what they like. We can in no way approve of such an attitude."
Then at the 2009 World Economic Forum, Erdogan walked off the platform after a heated exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres that included condemning Cast Lead. The conflict disrupted Turkey's Israeli/Syrian mediation efforts at the time under its "zero problems" policy with neighboring states, hoping to further its assertive regional role, and position itself as a lead player to facilitate, among other goals, EU membership.
Erdogan, in fact, said:
"Turkey is coming to share the burden of the EU rather than being a burden for it. In order to be a global power, there must be a global vision and relations with different regions....Turkey will be the gate of the EU opening to Asia, the Middle East and the Islamic world....The full security of the EU passes through the full membership of Turkey."
In other words, Turkey wants to position itself as an indispensable regional power, mediator and peace maker, while maintaining ties East and West. In fact, Foreign Minister Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu said:
"The new global order must be more inclusive and participatory....Turkey will be among those active and influential actors who sit around the table to solve problems rather than" watch them fester.
Nonetheless, because ongoing tensions continued, Turkey cancelled Israel's participation in its October 2009 Anatolian Eagle military exercise, rankling its officials though concerns were thought to be temporary.
However, after the Mavi Marmara incident, considerable friction followed, including hostile public comments. Last January, for example, Erdogan said Israel's Turkel Commission Flotilla massacre investigation lacked credibility or value for concluding no violations of international law when, in fact, Israeli commandos committed cold-blooded murder.
He also wants Gaza's siege ended, said Hamas is Palestine's legitimate government, and called Netanyahu's Israel's worst ever, adding that Foreign Minister/Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman is its "greatest problem."
Turkey wants Middle East security. Israel often threatens it. Both countries also vie for regional dominance, while at the same time cooperating on military, intelligence and other mutually strategic interests.
Under Erdogan, Turkey seeks a greater Middle East role, including as an intermediary between divergent sides while fulfilling its NATO membership obligations. In March, it sent five ships and a submarine to Libya's coast. In fact, Hurriyet Daily News quoted Erdogan saying:
"Turkey said 'yes' to three tasks within NATO: the takeover of Benghazi airport for the delivery of humanitarian aid, the task about control of the air corridor, and the involvement of Turkish naval forces in the corridor between Benghazi and Crete."
Moreover, since April, NATO's Libyan air operations have been run from its Izmir, Turkey Air Command Headquarters for Southern Europe.
In addition, from May 1 - June 2, Turkey hosted an opposition forces "Change in Syria" conference without pressing for regime change. In fact, after President Abdullah Gul's key advisor, Ersat Hurmuzlu, told Saudi Arabia's al-Arabya television that Assad had less than a week to meet protester demands, he retracted saying:
"We are not redesigning others' houses. It is Syria's own problem," in contrast to Saudi and US media sources openly calling for regime change, as well as Obama demanding Assad "reform," or "get out of the way."
In contrast, Turkey knows if Syria boils over, it faces multiple problems, including a much greater refugee crisis than now. Also, its hope to become a "Northern Alliance" leader will be dashed. As a result, it wants to spearhead change to further its own standing, as well as perhaps accomplish the impossible - please all sides and avoid greater regional conflict.
Against Western and Israeli interests, however, it may achieve little, but in its own neighborhood, it's determined to try, including reports of reconciliation with Israel. More on that below.
At the same time, the more assertive Turkey becomes, the more at odds it is with Washington, its key NATO/EU allies, and Israel. In fact, trying to please all sides while positioning itself as an indispensable regional player, may cause it more problems than it achieves, especially given Washington's aim for unchallenged Mediterranean Basin control from North Africa through the Middle East, into Central Asia to Russia and China's borders, using Turkey for its own strategic interests.
Secret Turkish/Israeli Negotiations
On June 21, Haaretz writer Barak Ravid headlined, "Israel and Turkey holding secret direct talks to mend diplomatic rift," saying:
With Washington's support, both countries are trying to resolve differences, according to an unnamed Israeli official. "A source in the Turkish Foreign Ministry and a US official confirmed that talks are being held," though aides to Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman declined comment.
In addition, Washington held talks with senior Turkish officials, to improve Israeli relations and get Ankara to abandon its late June Flotilla II participation, now cancelled without resolving Mavi Marmara massacre issues.
In fact, a UN inquiry report is due out early July. Both sides represented on it "want to use (the) release as an opportunity....to put the affair behind them and rehabilitate ties."
Erdogen's reelection also leaves him freer to be "pragmatic," provided he can successfully broker a Syrian solution peacefully. At the same time, Netanyahu earlier said "Israel had no desire to continue a tense relationship and would be happy to have any opportunity to improve the situation," provided, of course, it concedes little in return for a lot, the way it always negotiates like Washington.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.