Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Israel “shows no mercy” and is “cruel” in its treatment of Palestinians in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that airs on Sunday.
The Turkish leader also questioned the number of Israelis that have suffered under missile attacks launched from Gaza where the militant Islamist movement Hamas has been in government since 2007, before claiming that “hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were killed” as a result of military action by Israel.
Relations between the two Middle Eastern states have deteriorated since May of last year when Israel intercepted a small fleet of blockade runners that was bound for Gaza. The activists on board the ships claimed that they were carrying humanitarian aid for the people of the Gaza Strip but attacked Israeli soldiers when they boarded the lead vessel. Nine Turks were killed in the skirmish that ensued.
Ankara strongly condemned the incident. Erdoğan’s deputy prime minister likened the action to “piracy” and characterized it as “a dark stain on the history of humanity.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the architect of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy, compared the Israeli raid to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Turkey demanded a formal apology from Israel for the loss of life as well as reparations for the families of the deceased. When its demands weren’t met this month, it barred Israeli military aircraft from Turkish air space and vowed legal action against the Israeli soldiers that were involved in the incident.
The Israeli embargo of Gaza continues but Egypt, where veteran president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in a popular uprising last February, unilaterally lifted the blockade this May.
Erdoğan received a hero’s welcome in Cairo nearly two weeks ago where he spoke passionately on behalf of the Palestinian cause. “Our Palestinian brothers should be able to have their own state,” he told a summit of Arab leaders, urging their support for full Palestinian membership of the United Nations.
The Palestinian Authority sought recognition of statehood at the General Assembly in New York on Friday despite American and Israeli opposition to the move. Western powers insist that a Palestinian state can only come about as a result of negotiations with Israel.
Although he risks alienating traditional allies of Turkey’s with his populist rhetoric, Erdoğan will likely continue to champion the Palestinian cause and frustrate his nation’s relations with Israel in the process.
The prime minister’s moral support of the Palestinians held his administration in good stead among Arabs who took to the streets to demand democracy in Egypt and Syria this year. Its “zero problems with neighbors” policy, by contrast, accomplished little in Damascus where President Bashar al-Assad hardly recognized Turkey’s plea to end the violence against demonstrators.
The emerging new political class in Egypt and possibly Syria might remember Turkey’s willingness to do business with the old, authoritarian guard in these countries and regards Ankara’s once close ties with the Jewish state warily. This threatens to derail the very aim of more than a decade of Turkish foreign policy — to establish trade relations across the region and position Turkey as the pivotal power broker of the Middle East.
So Turkey is changing its foreign policy again, this time in favor of not just its neighboring governments but its neighboring people.
Turkey, with its novel blend of moderate Islamism and secular administration, uniquely positioned between the Muslim world and Europe, should have been on the side of those to whom it appealed most all along — the very educated, cosmopolitan youngsters who agitated against the corrupted and oppressive enlightened despotisms of their time.
Erdoğan admitted as much when he avoided answering Fareed Zakaria’s question about Turkey’s realignment plainly. “We work on adopting the science of the West,” he said. “But let’s not forget, there are really beautiful things in the East, as well. Do not leave the eastern parts of the world aside.”