Turkey's Surprisingly Muted Flotilla Reaction

Turkish protests against Israel have been fiercer than the official response. Mustafa Ozer / AFP-Getty Images

Turkish protests against Israel have been fiercer than the official response.

The strongest, most strident response to Israel’s flotilla raid came from Turkey, home to most of the dead activists. But Turkey’s official response could have been much worse, and its leaders have been further calmed by Washington.

Publicly, Turkey’s anger continues, as vehemently as ever, over the Israeli raid on a largely Turkish humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza. But behind the scenes, the White House has actually had some success in its efforts to save Turkey’s relations with Israel from complete breakdown. President Barack Obama spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for nearly an hour by phone on Tuesday to express “his deep condolences for the loss of life and injuries” and promised that the U.S. would back calls for an “impartial inquiry” as well as try to find ways to “provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza without undermining Israel’s security.” Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also spent more than three hours face to face with Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Those efforts to defuse Ankara’s rage didn’t stop a visibly furious Erdogan from delivering a speech to the Turkish Parliament Wednesday calling for U.N. sanctions on Israel and for the soldiers involved in the raid to be tried as war criminals in the International Court of Justice.

But the truth is that Turkey’s reaction could have been much worse. Erdogan’s opposition is a good test case. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) was once reliably pro-American and even pro-Israeli. Today, it has come out swinging much more fiercely than Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has its roots in political Islam. CHP deputy Ahmet Ersin yesterday flayed the government for not sending warships to escort the Gaza convoy and protect Turkish citizens aboard. Another CHP deputy, Malik Ecder Özdemir, blasted the attack as “piracy.” And a call from the CHP demanding that the government “review its ties with Israel”—up to and including severing diplomatic ties—was thrown out of a parliamentary declaration after pressure from the AKP. Erdogan, the former Islamist with a constituency to please, has been more muted in his condemnation of Israel than many of his ultrasecularist opponents.

Erdogan also went out of his way to distinguish between the actions of the Israeli government and the Jewish people—a distinction that has been lost in criticism from elsewhere in the Muslim world—and ordered an increase in security around Turkey’s synagogues, Israeli consulates, and Jewish residences, warning against reprisals on Turkey’s Jews. He has also, significantly, ignored calls to cancel military procurement contracts with Israel, including a $20 million order for Israeli unmanned drones.

Erdogan has come under fire from pro-Israeli commentators over recent days for having turned away from the West and reorientated Turkey toward the Islamic world. By lambasting Israel, Erdogan intends “to establish that Turkey, under the leadership of the AKP, has become the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, a regional superpower and the key to world peace and political stability,” writes Anat Lapidot-Firilla of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Yet while Turkey has cozied up to its Eastern neighbors (Syria, Iraq, and Iran), it has also reached North and West, too—to Georgia, Armenia, Greece, and Bulgaria. Erdogan has also done more than any Turkish leader to push his country’s bid for European Union membership.

“Nothing will ever be the same again,” Erdogan said in the wake of Monday’s flotilla attack. But thanks in part to U.S. lobbying, Turkey hasn’t yet consigned its relationship with Israel to the dustbin of history, which is good news for both countries.