Washington, Oct. 26 - Turkey’s frayed relationship with Israel had its first positive sign in the past few years when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached out this week to Israel for help in its rescue efforts following the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck eastern Turkey Oct. 23.
But so far, Turkish and Israeli officials alike have been quick not to equate the humanitarian assistance with improved relations. Rather, leaders on both sides said, such aid is a natural gesture in the wake of human suffering – although Turkey initially rejected offers of help from Israel before changing course.
Israel today (Oct. 26) sent mobile homes to help house some of the thousands left homeless in the wake of the temblor; Israel plans to send hundreds more by ship. The official death toll is already close to 500 and is expected to rise significantly.
“When a country is in distress and has humanitarian problems, it is right to help and put things aside for a minute," Defense Ministry director-general Ehud Shani told Israel Radio earlier this week. “Every element that we bring to the table will, it seems, bring about some kind of improvement, and we will ultimately reach better days."
"We don't mix humanitarian issues with political issues," a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said. "We gave the same answer to every country that has offered help. We said we are making an assessment and we will turn to you if there is need for help. We said this to every country, including Israel."
Despite such stilted statements, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this past week called Erdogan to offer Israel’s condolences – the first conversation the two men had in 10 months.
Turkey was among the first countries to recognize Israel and the two nations have enjoyed a number of positive economic and diplomatic developments over the years, including mutual visits of high-ranking leaders, joint military training exercises and information-sharing to address security threats. Just seven years ago, Erdogan and then-prime minister Ariel Sharon announced 17 new joint military projects, and Turkey became Israel’s largest regional trade partner.
The goodwill between the countries eroded significantly after Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006 and Erdogan’s AKP party hosted a Hamas leader. A month later, Turkey canceled two military deals with Israel. That same year, tens of thousands of Turks held several protests in opposition to Israeli operations in Palestinian areas and Lebanon.
In the past few years, events that have left Turkey-Israeli tensions at an all time-high include:
· Attempts in June 2010 by a Turkish flotilla to illegally enter Israeli waters and break Israel’s naval blockade to reach Gaza. The Turkish government and activists participating in the flotilla ignored Israel’s warnings not to enter Israeli territory without permission. Israel intercepted most of the vessels peacefully with the exception of the Mavi Marmara ship, where weapons-wielding activists and members of a Turkish terrorist group launched a surprise attack on Israeli commandos. In the aftermath of the assault, nine Turks were killed.
· A UN report on the raid found that Israel's naval blockade of Gaza was legitimate but that Israeli force was excessive. Turkey has demanded an apology from Israel and expelled Israeli diplomats, cut military ties and lobbied in favor of the Palestinians’ unilateral bid for statehood.
· Erdogan’s threatened in Sept. 2011 to send more vessels into Gaza, this time accompanied by warships. He also has vowed to increase the number of Turkish naval patrols in the Mediterranean to stop Israel from conducting gas explorations. Turkey has engaged in saber rattling against both Cyprus and Israel, threatening to disrupt attempts to drill for huge reserves of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean.
· After the flotilla incident, Erdogan has made a number of bellicose statements aimed at Israel, saying Turkey would have been justified in going to war with Israel. “It was grounds for war,” he said. He added, “However, befitting Turkey's greatness, we decided to act with patience." Erdogan also said in July, "Israel is the main threat to peace in the Middle East” and in September said “Israel is the West’s spoiled child.”
· On the issue of Iran, Turkish President Abdullah Gul has said that Turkey was “sensitive to Iran’s nuclear policy – a top concern for Israel.
· In 2009, Turkish TV aired “Farewell,” a show about Israel’s defensive operation in Gaza that portrays the Israeli army as “murderous” and “bloodthirsty.” Turkey aired an anti-Israeli TV program, "Valley of the Wolves,” which depicts Israelis as “inhuman and brutal.” Its release was planned for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is just one example of the way in which anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic expressions in the media have multiplied in Turkey in recent years.