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With flotilla deaths, Turkey may be near tipping point on Israel

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An Israeli student brandishes her identity card in a demonstration outside Jerusalem's Hebrew University in support of the Israeli Navy raid on ships bound for Gaza, June 1, 2010.  (Kobi Gideon / Flash90)

An Israeli student brandishes her identity card in a demonstration outside Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in support of the Israeli Navy raid on ships bound for Gaza, June 1, 2010. (Kobi Gideon / Flash90)

The Israeli Navy, seen here approaching one of a flotilla of Gaza-bound ships, clashed with Turkish activists aboard one of the ships. (Moti Milrod/Pool/Flash90)

The Israeli Navy, seen here approaching one of a flotilla of Gaza-bound ships, clashed with Turkish activists aboard one of the ships. (Moti Milrod/Pool/Flash90)

ISTANBUL (JTA) — While Turkey and Israel have seen their once-close relationship deteriorate steadily for the past few years, the Israeli commando raid of a Turkish-led flotilla heading for Gaza, in which several Turks were killed, marks a dangerous new low in the two countries’ relations.

“Turkey is now involved in a way it’s never been before: Blood has been spilled,” said Hugh Pope, a Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy and advocacy organization.

Following Monday’s raid, massive street protests broke out in Turkey, and the country recalled its ambassador from Israel and summoned Israel’s ambassador to Ankara.

Addressing parliament Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke in harsh terms that seemed to leave little room for an easy rapprochement with Israel.

"This bloody massacre by Israel on ships that were taking humanitarian aid to Gaza deserves every kind of curse," Erdogan said. "This attack is on international law, the conscience of humanity and world peace.

"No one should test Turkey’s patience," he added. "Turkey’s hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable."

Four Turks were killed by Israeli commandos in Monday’s raid, which left five others dead. Dozens of others suffered wounds, including several Israeli soldiers. Before the flotilla set sail, Israel reportedly asked Turkish authorities to stop the ships from their Gaza-bound mission, but Turkish authorities demurred, saying they were civilian ships and could do nothing about them.

The deterioration in the Turkish-Israeli relationship, much of it connected to the fallout from Israel’s 2009 Gaza invasion, has been mirrored by an equally precipitous rise in Turkey’s visibility and involvement in the Middle East — an area that it had kept at arm’s length for decades because of historical enmity and mutual suspicion.

Until recently, Turkey’s growing regional role included a desire to parlay its good relations with both Israel and the Arab states into a role as a regional mediator. Ankara, for example, hosted Israel and Syria for a round of secret peace talks in 2008 that ultimately failed. All along Turkey has continued its close military cooperation with the Jewish state.

But for now, analysts say, Turkey appears to have abandoned its mediation efforts in the region in return for a more pronounced leadership role in the Muslim world. On Monday, Turkey canceled plans to hold joint a military exercise with the Israel Defense Forces.

“For the time being I don’t see any kind of opening for the peace process," said Gencer Ozcan, an expert on Turkey-Israel relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. "So if there isn’t any peace process, there isn’t any need for the good offices of a mediator.”

Pope said, “It’s going to be very hard for Turkey to portray itself as a neutral mediator with Israel anymore.”

Andrew Finkel, a columnist with the English-language daily Today’s Zaman, said that Turkey’s declared policy of “zero problems with neighbors” has come to a “juddering halt” in the case of Israel.

“Instead, Ankara appears to have given its tacit consent to another policy of sharpening contradictions, of trying to lance the boil instead of putting soothing ointment on the blister,” he said.

While Turkey may earn short-term gains from distancing itself from Israel, there are concerns about the long-term effect a serious breach between the two countries might have on an already conflict-ridden region.

“Turkey has gradually been losing one of the most significant leverages that it was using in the Arab world,” Ozcan said. “Even the Palestinians were telling Ankara over the years to keep talking to the Israelis.”

Turkey’s harsh response to Israel’s action is yet another signal of an important shift in Turkish foreign policy, analysts here say, with Turkey taking a more assertive role both regionally and globally. The government of the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), which first came into office in 2002, has worked to forge close relations with neighbors such as Syria and Iran.

“The AKP’s project is positioning Turkey," said Anat Lapidot-Firilla, a senior research fellow at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute. "It’s a project whose goal is to set up Turkey as an international player, on the one hand, and to get recognition of Turkey as a moderate, market-friendly leader in the Muslim world and be treated as such in international bodies."

Sami Kohen, a veteran Turkish political analyst and columnist who writes for the Milliyet daily, says Turkey’s hand in the region is strengthened now.

“There is now more reason for Turkey to take a more active part in the events of the Middle East, since it has suffered personally from this attack," Kohen said. "Now it can justify its anti-Israeli positions, which get a good deal of sympathy in the Arab and Islamic world.”

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