In the recent past Turkey has been one of Israel’s closest allies in the Middle East. It is a major destination for Israeli tourists, and there have been a spate of bilateral agreements.
But last week tens of thousands came onto the streets against Israel’s attack on the flotilla. The nine who died were all Turkish. The demonstrations are angrier and bigger than almost anything we’ve had in recent years. While the left has thrown itself into the protests, Muslims, marching very much as organised Muslims, make up the vast majority.
Turkey is a vital US ally in the Middle East. It has been more stable than Egypt, and has a bigger army and a bigger economy. President Barack Obama’s first overseas state visit was to Turkey.
It is not as important as Israel, of course. But the US has always liked the fact that its allies work together. Major military contracts, such as the modernisation of outdated Turkish tanks, have gone to Israeli companies. The Israeli air force has used Turkish air space for their training exercises.
Tensions first emerged after the barbarous Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008, which left 1,400 Palestinians dead.
During a televised debate the following month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israeli President Shimon Peres of “knowing how to kill people” and stormed off the platform when he was cut short by the chair.
Erdogan became a hero across the Arab world. He had said what millions of people in Turkey and in the broader region feel, and he deserved the popularity this gave him.
But there is also a deeper political reason at play. Turkey has long wanted to become a regional power, and after eight years of relative economic and political stability it is making serious moves in that direction.
This government is proceeding very skilfully, never openly treading on anyone’s toes and putting a very peaceful gloss on it.
Standing up to Israel is part of this plan and there’s no doubt the Turkish government has benefited domestically from its strong stance.
But the US government doesn’t want Turkey to take its fight with Israel too far. It is trying to deal with Iran and cannot afford to have its two main allies in the region fall out too seriously.
And the very fact of Turkey becoming and looking stronger makes Syria, Iran and Israel uneasy.
Who are the IHH?
The Human Rights and Freedoms and Human Aid Foundation (IHH) which organised the flotilla from Turkey has been accused of being an Islamic fundamentalist or even terrorist organisation. It is nothing of the kind.
It certainly has an Islamic orientation, and it focuses on areas where Muslim people suffer—such as Bosnia, Chechnya and Palestine.
But as he got back to Turkey last week with other survivors of the Freedom Flotilla, its chair, Bülent Yildirim, said, “If it were Jews living in Gaza and Muslims torturing Jews, I would also have organised such a flotilla. We stand against all oppression and cruelty”.
The IHH has now promised to organise a second flotilla. This could be even bigger than the first. And it would attract support from sections of society far beyond the traditional religious base of the IHH.