ISTANBUL - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is as shocked by the killing in Rafah as if he were a Scandinavian peace activist. In an interview with Haaretz he expresses himself with penetrating severity, powerful in its simplicity. "Today the Palestinians are the victims," says Erdogan, "and unfortunately the people of Israel are treating the Palestinians as they were treated 500 years ago [during the Spanish inquisition]. Bombing people - civilians - from helicopters, killing people without any considerations - children, women, the elderly - razing their buildings using bulldozers."
Erdogan is not an adolescent who is as yet unaware of the complexity of the world. He is an experienced statesman who heads a regional power that is mired in its own problems, and for him the close relationship with Israel has become a burden. In effect, Erdogan is telling Israel: You are not taking our sensitivities into account in your flagrant actions.
Erdogan has not gone crazy. He is leading a consistent and focused policy, which distinguishes between the Israeli government and its head and the historical closeness he believes exists between Turks and Israelis and Jews. When a prime minister chooses to bypass the framework of diplomatic relations with another country and to address its citizens directly, it is a genuine crisis. Erdogan is in effect severing contact with the prime minister of Israel, and is making do with a wave of his hand during the visit of President Katsav to Turkey, whose significance is merely populist.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry is expressing a similar policy. In an interview with Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, Abdullah Gul, a sober-minded statesman, who is known as a practical interlocutor with Israel, expresses an almost apologetic policy regarding his country's ties with Israel, which he describes as minimal. Commercial relations? Why not? Security cooperation? Meager and marginal. Water? We offered it to all the Arab countries first, and when they refused, why shouldn't we sell on the open market?, he justifies himself in the interview.
The system of constraints being imposed on the Turkish leadership is obvious. It has to maneuver on the complex internal front, to fight for its status in the European Union, to maintain its place in NATO while maintaining a complex relationship with the United States, and to preserve its regional status regarding the Middle Eastern countries and Iran. The assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin at the end of March was a turning point for Erdogan. The visit to Israel by the Turkish foreign minister was postponed, and the visit of the prime minister that was planned in its wake was canceled. "Go explain to your citizens and your voters, go explain to Muslim countries like Indonesia or Malaysia, how it is that Turkish-Israeli relations have remained so close even though Israel assassinates a Muslim religious leader in Gaza, by helicopter," says a senior diplomat in the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
Erdogan is sinning against Israel when he defines its activities as "state terrorism." He certainly also knows something about his country's fight against terror, from the days of the Kurdish underground. At the end of the month, Erdogan will be going on an official visit to Iran, in a gesture confirming the relationship being formed between Ankara and Tehran, and he already maintains close ties with Syria, although he is aware these two countries are prominent supporters of terrorism.
It's possible the alliance between Turkey and Israel will be downplayed and maintained clandestinely, as the optimists promise. It's possible the harsh declarations, which deviate from "frank discourse between friends," are being leveled at Israel only for the sake of appearances. But even so, the damage is tremendous. The front of declarations being formed between sworn enemies and hesitant friends will unite the entire Muslim world against Israel. And this is a real front, which is liable to return Israel to its previous status as a pariah state that everyone avoids, even if they maintain back-alley relations with it.
Did any of the officers in the chief of staff's forum that prepared the assassination of Sheikh Yassin inform the prime minister of all its implications? Did anyone warn the defense minister that beyond the significance of the sheikh's assassination in the local arena, a collapse of the political front that has been carefully built up over the years could be anticipated? Did they warn that India would have a hard time digesting it, that Turkey would be unable to tolerate it? Did they foresee that the military industries were liable to lose their contracts? That the strategic alliances with these countries would be put to a difficult test? Did the head of the plans and policy directorate say these things? Did the defense minister ignore them? Did the prime minister? And where was the foreign minister?
The leaders of Hamas promised revenge for the assassination of Yassin. They don't have to bother; the sheikh's revenge is already upon us, in full force.
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