Israel’s recent military incursion into Gaza has further strained its already troubled relationship with Turkey and highlighted the two countries’ divergent attitudes toward Hamas. For many Turks, the contrast between the muted U.S. reaction to the Israeli raid and its insistence on a rapid curtailment of Turkey’s own recent incursion into northern Iraq has also reinforced the perception that Washington applies different standards to Turkey and Israel.
During the late 1990s, increasingly close defense ties between Turkey and Israel were frequently touted as providing the foundations for a potential strategic realignment in the eastern Mediterranean (see EDM, February 13). There were already signs that such expectations were exaggerated even before the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in November 2002. However, there is little doubt that the relationship has deteriorated under the AKP – to the point where recent efforts have focused more on preserving the relationship than building on it. Although the AKP has repeatedly denied accusations that it is anti-Semitic, its instinctive solidarity toward other Muslims has meant that it has invariably sympathized with the Palestinians in their disputes with Israel. Even if AKP ministers usually strive to be restrained in their public comments on Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, there are often times when they are unable to control their emotions.
Speaking at a meeting of the AKP’s youth branches on March 2, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vigorously condemned Israel’s recent military incursion into Gaza. “It is impossible for us to approve of the recent inhumane practices [by Israel] in Gaza. Disproportionate force is being used to kill civilians,” he said. “We cannot explain these attacks in humanitarian terms. There is no legal basis for them. The Turkish Republic’s position on Israel’s behavior is very clear, we condemn it” (Sabah, Aksam, CNNTurk, March 3).
Erdogan attacked Israel for refusing to negotiate with Hamas. “We told them to solve the problem through diplomacy,” he said. “But unfortunately they did not follow the path shown them by the Turkish Republic. This means that it is a question of identity” (Sabah, Milliyet, March 3).
On the afternoon of March 3, Erdogan telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to tell him that Israel’s use of force was “unacceptable” and to call on him to enter into negotiations with Hamas.
Later on March 3, speaking after a Cabinet meeting, Government Spokesman Cemil Cicek called on Palestinians to avoid doing anything that could “serve as a pretest for military operations that would harm the Palestinian people” (Radikal, Vatan, March 4). But he reserved his strongest words for Israel, condemning what he described as a disproportionate response to the attack last week by Palestinian militants that triggered the Israeli raid.
“The Israeli operation is an attempt to intimidate the Palestinians by inflicting collective punishment,” said Cicek. “It is totally unacceptable to bomb civilian settlements. Such bombing will inevitably result in the deaths of any young people, women, and children. Turkey does not accept any pretext for the bombing of civilian settlements” (Aksam, Radikal, March 4).
Cicek also accused Israel of blocking Turkish aid to the Palestinians. “We have sent eight trucks of aid,” he said. “But some of this aid has not been able to reach those who need it because it has been blocked at Customs for bureaucratic reasons and for other reasons we do not understand” (NTV, March 3, Aksam, Radikal, March 4).
On March 4, Gabby Levy, the Israeli ambassador to Turkey, held a press conference in Ankara. Levy declined to comment specifically on Erdogan’s and Cicek’s remarks and attempted to draw a parallel between the Israeli military operation and Turkey’s own recent eight-day incursion into northern Iraq to strike at units of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) (see EDM, February 29, March 3).
“We believe that PKK terrorism and Hamas terrorism is the same,” said Levy (NTV, March 4).
Turkey has always rejected any equation between the two organizations and has consistently resisted calls for it to enter into negotiations with the PKK. In February 2006, the AKP famously hosted a Hamas delegation, led by the organization’s exiled leader Khalid Mishal, for talks in Ankara.
Most Turks have preferred to concentrate on what they regard as inconsistencies in U.S. policy rather than that of their own government. The brief honeymoon in U.S.-relations that followed the November 5 meeting in Washington between Erdogan and President George W. Bush, at which the United States promised to provide Turkey with actionable intelligence against the PKK, came to an end last week following a series of statements by U.S. officials calling on Turkey to wind up its incursion into northern Iraq as soon as possible (see EDM, February 29, March 3). Most Turks regard the PKK as being responsible for up to 40,000 deaths since it first launched its insurgency in August 1984, including the killing of nearly 40 Turkish soldiers in less than a month in fall 2007. The Turkish media were quick to note that, when Israel launched its incursion into Gaza following the killing of one Israeli, there was no similar warning from Washington. “This is simply a double standard,” headlined best-selling daily Hurriyet (Hurriyet, March 3).