Israel and Turkey: A short history of a tense relationship


On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for “operational mistakes” during the 2010 raid on a Turkish flotilla heading for Gaza. An announcement that the two nations were resuming normal diplomatic ties quickly followed.

The incident that turned Turkish-Israel ties into a full-blown row came in May 2010, when Israeli forces confronted a flotilla of six ships attempted to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza strip. The Israeli commandos were attacked when they boarded one of the ships, the Mavi Marmara, and they responded with deadly force. Nine people were killed, all of them Turks (one was a dual U.S.-Turkish citizen). The incident marked the nadir of Turkey-Israel ties. JTA reported in the aftermath of the raid:

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."

Signs of trouble in the Turkey-Israel relationship long predated the raid, appearing not long after Erdogan took office. In 2004, early reports began to emerge of Ankara putting the breaks on the close military alliance between the two countries.

In 2005, Erdogan visited Israel and met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a bid to carve out a larger role for Turkey in regional peacemaking. Then and in subsequent months, Turkey played the role of mediator between Syria and Israel.

But after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 and Israel began to step up its operations there, Erdogan’s pro-Palestinian rhetoric took on an increasingly anti-Israel flavor. In 2009, while fighting raged in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, Erdogan accused Israel of massacres and attempted genocide. “Israel is perpetrating inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction," he said. "Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents."

Shortly afterward, Erdogan stormed out of a meeting in Davos, Switzerland, after an argument with Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, over Israeli actions in Gaza. Peres later phoned Erdogan to diffuse the tensions.

In April 2010, Erdogan referred to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as his “dear friend,” and described Israel as the main threat to Middle East peace.

The flotilla raid came two months later. After the raid, Erdogan suspended defense agreements with Israel and barred Israeli planes from flying through Turkey’s airspace. Over the last three years, Erdogan has blamed Jewish control of the media for anti-Turkish bias and suggested as recently as last month that Zionism is a crime against humanity. This week, he backpedalled from that assertion.

It remains to be seen whether last Friday’s apology — arranged by President Obama — will bring an end to the years of growing Turkish hostility toward Israel that have coincided with Erdogan’s tenure.


Recommended from JTA