Turkey's Collision Course With Israel

Turkey's support of the so-called freedom flotilla is yet another example of Ankara's attempts to insert itself into the Israeli-Palestinian fray in a big way

If you ask Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there is no difference between Israel and Al-Qaida. "Just as we regretted the deaths in the September 11 attacks in the United States, and after that the attacks in London, Madrid and Istanbul, we regret the deaths of the people in Gaza," he declared during his visit to Brazil last week. According to Erdogan, the status of victims in Gaza is identical to that of the victims of terror attacks and hence the status of those who carry out the acts of terror is identical.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

As a sponsor of the doomed "Free Gaza" flotilla, Turkey hastened to recall its ambassador, who was readying to leave in August anyway. Then Turkey also initiated an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council, of which it is a nonpermanent member.

It looks as though Israel is facing a new Turkey. This is not the Turkey seeking to be close to Israel in order to advance its interests in Washington, but rather one that dictates policy to Washington directly.

Those who didn't want Turkey as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, those who criticized its leaders for having met with the heads of Hamas, those who objected to its mediation with Syria - they will now get Turkey as an unofficial flagship in the effort to break the blockade of Gaza.

At the beginning of the year, Turkey helped Operation Lifeline Gaza, a convoy of about 200 trucks that set out from the country via Syria and headed south from there to Aqaba in Jordan. From there the plan was to cross the Red Sea to Nuweiba and transfer the cargo to Gaza. But Egypt refused to permit the transit of the convoy through the Red Sea and Sinai. Feverish phone calls from Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were to no avail. The convoy had to turn in its tracks and take to the sea in boats from Syria to El-Arish, where the Egyptian authorities allowed only 140 trucks to continue to Gaza and unloaded the rest in El-Arish. To this day, say the Palestinians, some of the goods have not reached their destination. This is also why the organizers of the flotilla did not want to go through El-Arish.

Egypt did not officially declare its policy regarding the maritime protest this week, but made it clear that it "always supports aid to the inhabitants of Gaza - subject to the known rules." It informed the Turkish authorities that, as in January, anyone who wants to help Gaza should be so kind as to do so under Cairo's conditions.

Meanwhile, not a single word of criticism about Egypt has been heard in Turkey. The main front is Israel - not Egypt, like the last time around.

Follow the money

The involvement of official Turkish representatives in arranging the sailing permits is closely tied to the fact that the main initiator is the Turkish human rights organization IHH (Insani Yardim Vakfi ), headed by Bulent Yildirim.

Yildirim maintains ongoing relations with the Hamas leadership, but it is his connection with the Lighthouse organization, a Turkish charity that operates in Germany, that is of particular interest. Representatives of Lighthouse were convicted in 2008 in a German court of illegally transferring funds they had raised to Turkish companies. About two and a half years ago the Turkish press reported that a large part of the funds raised by Lighthouse - which was a partner in the aid convoy to Gaza in 2008 - were transferred to Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, also known by its Turkish acronym AKP, and its top members. Erdogan, who leads AKP, was furious and called for boycotting the newspapers that "besmirched the party and its reputation."

This week a number of Turkish sources said Erdogan's new-found sympathy for Gazans was connected to a desire to keep the money flowing between such organizations and his party. "It is important to check who financed this flotilla, which cost millions," a source said. "Anyone who wanted to help Gaza could have sent that money directly to Gaza or purchased more goods."

Can't be ignored

If in the meantime one cannot necessarily prove the direct financial connection between the ruling party in Ankara and the flotilla, Turkey has itself claimed sponsorship for the convoy of boats as part of its overall Middle East policy. AKP started out with the slogan "Zero problems with the neighboring countries" and, thanks to the ambitious Davutoglu, has begun to focus on building a new regional strategic axis of which Turkey is the main pillar.

The connection with Iran and the uranium exchange deal Davutoglu put together over many long weeks - apparently with the blessing of U.S. President Barack Obama, as emerged from a letter revealed by the Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - are an almost natural continuation of the close ties with Syria and the cooperation among Iran, Turkey and Syria in the matter of Iraq.

Turkey has sent a significant force to help in the war in Afghanistan, it is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and it has agreed, under pressure, to compromise with Armenia.

Its considerable influence in the Caucasus and its cooperation with Egypt on economic issues are making it an element that cannot be ignored in any of the major powers' strategic plans.

Last week Turkey signed a military cooperation agreement whereby it will be able to refurbish Saudi tanks and aircraft using Turkish contractors, among them Aselsan, which partnered with the Turkish air force and signed a contract in 2005 to purchase unmanned aerial vehicles from Israel Aerospace Industries. One can assume Israeli know-how might serve this new deal as well and fall into Saudi hands.

The Turkish sponsorship of the flotilla is only one more obvious step in that same strategy whereby Ankara is bypassing Jerusalem in order to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Or maybe it would be more correct to say: Turkey is on a collision course with Israel.