Shortly after Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recip Erdogan came to power in 2002, he began undermining Turkey’s strategic alliance with Israel. Erdogan officially ended the alliance last May when he sent the IHH, an al Qaeda-aligned, Turkish NGO affiliated with his Islamist AKP Party to lead the pro-Hamas flotilla to Gaza.
Aboard the Mavi Marmara, IHH members violently attacked IDF naval commandos who boarded the ship in order to prevent it from breaking Israel’s lawful maritime blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza coast. In the life and death battle that ensued, nine of the IHH assailants were killed.
By attempting to break Israel’s lawful blockade, passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara and the rest of the ships in the flotilla were engaged in illicit acts of war against the Jewish state and providing illicit aid and comfort to an illegal terrorist organization. In supporting and arguably organizing the flotilla, including the Mavi Marmara, Erdogan himself was waging an unlawful war against Israel.
Erdogan reacted to the Mavi Marmara incident with enraged indignation. He demanded that Israel apologize for its commandos’ actions and pay compensation to the families of the dead. He also demanded an international inquiry into Israel’s actions.
Answering his call, the UN set up a commission to investigate last year’s flotilla episode. The report has been ready since May. But its publication has been repeatedly delayed. According to media accounts of its findings, the UN commission agrees that Israel’s blockade of Gaza is legal. It also claims that the naval commandos used disproportionate force in fending off the Mavi Marmara passengers’ assault against them.
In a bid to salvage Turkey’s ties to Israel and so increase waning Congressional support for Turkey, the Obama administration has been mediating talks between Israel and Turkey for the past few months. According to news reports, the administration is now pressuring Israel to agree to Erdogan’s demand for an apology and to pay compensation to the families of those killed onboard the Mavi Marmara. The U.S. is also demanding that Turkey agree not to press damages or war crimes claims against Israeli personnel in international or other courts.
Given President Obama’s expressed admiration and support for Erdogan, it makes sense that he is pushing this position. But the question remains, why is Turkey insisting that Israel apologize and pay damages for the IDF’s lawful actions on the Mavi Marmara? What is he trying to achieve? And what would be the consequences if Israel were to bow to U.S. pressure and apologize?
There are two explanations for Erdogan’s behavior. First, there is the issue of honor, which plays such a prominent role in Islamic society. He views the Mavi Marmara incident in the context of honor politics. And he demands an apology from Israel in order to increase his honor and diminish Israel’s.
Most of Israel’s objections to Erdogan’s demand to date have centered around this issue. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon have cited this as the primary reason for refusing to apologize.
But while unpleasant, honor is probably not Erdogan’s main rationale for pursing his demand for an Israeli apology. Since he was reelected to serve a third term as prime minister last month Erdogan has been openly seeking to establish a neo-Ottoman Turkish hegemonic position in the Arab world.
To this end he has been actively interfering in the popular revolt against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. The IHH has been hosting Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey. Erdogan’s clear aim is to replace Iran as Syria’s overlord in a post-Assad Syria.
Erdogan has also been actively engaging Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood since the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak in February. Erdogan plans a high profile visit to Egypt in the near future. And he plans to end his visit to Egypt by crossing the Egyptian border with Gaza. There he will become the highest-level foreign leader to visit Gaza since the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood Hamas took over in 2007.
As far as Erdogan is concerned, if he gets the U.S. to force Israel to apologize, it will be a massive public relations coup in his bid to convince the Arabs to accept his leadership. After all, Israel would be apologizing for having had the temerity to oppose the aggression of IHH terrorists engaged in an act of war against Israel. An Israeli apology would serve as proof that his double game of remaining a NATO member and carrying out aggression against Israel is the winning formula. If Israel apologizes for defending itself against Turkish aggression, Erdogan will have succeeded where the Arabs have failed.
Obviously, on the merits, Israel has no reason to apologize. And Turkish promises not to file lawsuits and war crimes complaints against Israel will have no legal weight. The Turkish pledge will not bind the relatives of the dead. And an Israeli apology and compensation will provide them with a prima facie claim that Israel admits culpability.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and senior IDF officers reportedly argue in favor of an apology, claiming the strategic alliance with Turkey is so important that Israel must be willing to swallow its pride in order to rebuild it.
This argument has apparently won over Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor. It has also caused Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to temper his honor-based rejection of the Turkish demand.
The problem with this argument is that it fails to take address Erdogan’s second, and more strategically significant motivation of using Israeli humiliation to strengthen his image as a pan-Islamic leader.
That motivation gives lie to the notion that Erdogan has any interest in reinstating Turkey’s strategic alliance with Israel. The man who is cultivating Hamas in the PA, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, is not going to permit the Israeli Air Force to renew its training flights over Turkish airspace.
Erdogan is not going to share intelligence with Israel on Iran. He will not cooperate with Mossad agents along Turkey’s border with Iran or Syria.
Instead he will use his ability to humiliate Israel and curb its military operations to demonstrate to the Muslim Brotherhood that it should accept Turkey’s role as regional hegemon and operate under its wings.
Moreover, Israel can fully expect that under Erdogan, Turkey will share any intelligence information Israel provides with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that any intelligence information Turkey transfers to Israel to be of limited value.
The UN announced on Sunday that it was delaying the publication of its report on the Mavi Marmara for another month. The expectation is that Israel will bow to Turkish and U.S. pressure and apologize and so obviate the need for the report to ever see the light of day.
Given the true stakes involved, Israel must stick to its guns and say no apology, no compensation, and no political prize for Erdogan.
Originally published in The Jewish Press.