Speaking to a parliamentary group of his Justice and Development Party in Ankara on Tuesday, Erdogan said, “We have no problems with the Israeli people, but unfortunately the actions
of the Israeli administration are strengthening anti-Semitism in the world.”
Erdogan said: “If a country wants to learn respect, it must accept other people’s right to live.”
The Turkish leader said that Israel is a major arms producer, hence there is no question of parity between the militarily strong Israelis and the virtually defenceless Palestinians.
“While Palestinians are using stones as weapons, Israeli helicopters are raining bombs on them.”
Erdogan’s latest remarks came just days after Turkey temporarily recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv and consul-general in Jerusalem for “consultations”.
The move was widely interpreted as an expression of Turkish displeasure with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hard-line policy towards Palestinians.
Yossi Alpher, a prominent political analyst and expert on the Middle East, says Israel should not take Turkey for granted.
Israel’s military actions against
He said the Sharon government should have anticipated the negative impact of the harsh military operations against Palestinians on Israel’s relations with predominantly Muslim Turkey.
“The graphic images from Rafah and elsewhere alienated not only Turkey but many other countries,” Alpher told Aljazeera.net, referring to the Israeli army blitz on the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza.
The Israeli operation wreaked havoc on two Palestinian neighbourhoods and killed or injured hundreds of Palestinians.
Alpher indicts the Israeli leadership on two counts. “At the height of the Rafah operation, we made a serious mistake when the Sharon government turned down Erdogan’s offer to mediate between Israel and Syria.”
“This is not the way to treat a friend who offers his good offices for peace,” he said.
Following the Rafah episode, Erdogan told a visiting Israeli minister that his country’s treatment of Palestinians was comparable to the way Jews were treated in Spain during the Inquisition.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry called Erdogan’s remarks “unfortunate and inappropriate” and said:
“The latest statements add to a series of recent remarks that unfortunately do not reflect our reality. Israel is not fighting against stones but against the terror of suicide bombers, which has claimed the lives of some 1000 Israelis over the past few years and Erdogan should address these facts when addressing the matter.”
Turkey’s staunchly secular army
To be sure, Israel is not blind to the recent developments clouding its relations with Turkey. But how worried really is the Sharon government that Turkey may be edging away from its strategic alliance with Israel?
Aljazeera.net put the question to Ofra Bengo, an expert on Turkey at the Moshe Dayan Centre for African and Middle Eastern studies in Tel Aviv.
She said the Erdogan government is trying to strike a balance between Turkey’s relations with Israel and the Arab-Muslim world.
“First of all, we have to remember that this government has its roots in political Islam and is different from the previous secular Turkish governments.
“Second, it seems to me that the present government is trying to assert itself as independent from US and Israeli influence, which might serve Turkish efforts to join the European Union.”
Bengo acknowledged that Israeli leaders are somewhat dismayed by Turkish criticism of the Jewish state’s policies and behaviour towards Palestinians.
Even so, she said, Turkey continues to have a strong national interest in maintaining good relations with Israel. The allusion is to the link between Turkey’s friendly relations with Israel and with the United States.
Many influential members of the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington are also strong backers of Turkey’s causes.
“The present [Turkish]government is trying to assert itself as independent from US and Israeli influence, which might serve Turkish efforts to join the European Union”
The Moshe Dayan Centre specialist said, however, it is unlikely that the staunchly secular military establishment – despite its strong stake in close Turkish-Israeli ties at the defence level – will move to rein in the Islamic-leaning government.
This is because the ruling party is highly popular while the army brass is no longer all-powerful, Bengo said.
In fact, the political rhetoric itself may be a pointer to Turkey’s changed domestic equation.
A few months ago, both Erdogan and his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, had used the term “state terrorism” to describe Israel’s incursions into Palestinian population centres and its assassination of resistance fighters.
Israeli Government officials contacted by Aljazeera.net refused to respond to the suggestion that Erdogan’s utterances indicated a deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel.
“The graphic images
One Foreign Ministry official said Israel does not wish to “escalate things at this point”.
None the less, the ministry strenuously rejected Prime Minister Erdogan’s statement in Ankara on Tuesday that Israeli persecution of Palestinians was fuelling anti-Semitism:
“At a time when the international community is supporting Sharon’s proposed disengagement plan aimed at advancing peace in the region, those wishing to promote the process should display a balanced and realistic view of the situation in the area.”
The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s rejoinder predictably glossed over the government’s policy of Palestinian land annexation and settlement expansion in the West Bank, which many believe is the other side of Sharon’s ‘unilateral disengagement’ plan.