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Flotilla Rapprochement in the Past, Turkey’s Erdogan Tees-Off on Israel

Notwithstanding political posturing, Erdogan probably believes his tirades

ISTANBUL – On Monday night Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lambasted Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, marking the first feud between the two countries since a major diplomatic reconciliation last summer.

Erdoğan criticized the “racist and discriminatory” treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government, saying “each day that Jerusalem is under occupation is an insult to us.”

Israel responded by summoning the Turkish ambassador and criticizing Ankara’s recent human rights record.

“Those who systematically violate human rights in their own country should not lecture and take the moral high ground over the region’s sole real democracy,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emanuel Nahshon said in a public statement.

Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum and a specialist on both Israel and Turkey, thinks Erdoğan’s comments were mostly for a domestic audience. The statements may have been aimed at boosting support after only narrowly winning a recent referendum vote expanding Erdoğan’s powers that was marred by claims of voter fraud.

“When [Erdoğan] feels like he needs a political boost the easiest thing for him to do is to say something [negative] about Israel or Israelis,” Koplow told The Media Line.

He says the Israelis understand that the Turkish president’s remarks are mostly political posturing, and so there probably won’t be major consequences.

“I think the Israelis understand that it’s for domestic political consumption,” Koplow said. “I think they understand this for what it is and what it isn’t, and they don’t want to blow it up into something bigger than it is.”

Umut Uzer, a professor at Istanbul Technical University with expertise in Turkish-Israeli relations, told The Media Line that Israeli policy is very unpopular in Turkey and Erdoğan’s criticisms likely struck a chord with many.

Uzer said many in Turkey were very angry about the recent discussion I Israel’s parliament to limit the volume of the Call to Prayer (broadcast from mosques over loud speakers five times a day at what non-Muslims complain are unacceptably high decibel levels) and are wary of increasing nationalism in Israel.

“Israel is becoming more and more right-wing, and people who are more critical of Arabs and Muslims are getting stronger,” Uzer said.

He says Erdoğan probably genuinely means his criticisms of Israel, even if political posturing is a factor.

“He seems to see himself as the protector of Muslims everywhere, but in particular in Palestine.”

Before the rapprochement last summer, Erdoğan had said Israeli politicians were “worse than Hitler,” referred to Israel as a “terrorist state,” and accused the government of genocide in the Gaza Strip.

Uzer said Erdoğan’s comments on Monday were “unexpectedly strong,” but agrees with Koplow that relations between the two countries are unlikely to be strongly affected.

“Maybe we’ll have two tracks – on the one hand, a Turkish president who’s highly critical of Israeli acts, but on the other hand maybe we’ll have a pragmatic relationship as far as bilateral trade and energy relations,” Uzer said.

“There’s a cold peace between Israel and Turkey at the moment,” he said, unlike the close relations the countries enjoyed in the past.

Koplow says tourism and trade between Turkey and Israel have gone up, and are likely to stay strong, as they did even during the diplomatic freeze. In 2010 relations were severely downgraded after a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, led a flotilla to end the blockade of Gaza and Israeli commandos killed ten Turkish nationals onboard whom the Israelis accuse of being agents provocateur.

However, aside from trade and an interest in a potential energy deal involving recently-discovered gas in the eastern Mediterranean, relations between the two countries are likely to remain cool and distrustful for the foreseeable future.

“I think it’s entirely a relationship of convenience,” Koplow said. “On the security and intelligence side, the Israelis don’t trust the Turks at all, for good reason I think.”

He says Ankara’s convivial relations with Iran, one of Israel’s primary security threats, are a sticking point, as well as Turkey’s strong support for the Palestinian group Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and most western countries.

“For both sides it makes sense to have as robust an economic relationship as possible and to understand that there are serious limits to the relationship in other areas,” Koplow said.

“[The Israeli government] isn’t not under any allusions to have Turkey under Erdoğan as a true strategic partner in the region.”