On Monday, a Turkish court charged four Israeli military leaders with the deaths of nine activists who participated in the Gaza flotilla expedition in 2010.
The four indicted senior members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) include Gabi Ashkenazi, formerly Israel's military chief of staff, and three other prominent officers. A prosecutor in Istanbul has recommended nine consecutive life sentences for each official -- one for every life lost.
The 144-page indictment comes nearly two years after IDF forces, enforcing Israel's blockade on Palestine's Gaza strip, intercepted six boats traveling from Cyprus. The vessels were filled with activists determined to break the blockade.
The ensuing confrontation ended with nine activists dead, and Monday's indictment seeks retribution for those losses. Israel has asserted its right to enforce the blockade, while Turkey has protested against the use of deadly force on international waters.
According to the BBC, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said that the issue should have been dropped long ago.
I think we need to say to the Turks: As far as we are concerned, this saga is behind us. Now, we need to cooperate. Lack of cooperation harms not only us, but Turkey as well.
But Turkey, which expelled the Israeli ambassador from Ankara on Monday, shows no signs of backing down. The incident is just one more testament to the continuing corrosion of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which were close allies until recently.
Buildup To A Breakdown
Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel as a state in 1949, and their partnership was especially strong over much of the last two decades. The countries were standard-bearers for functional democracy in the Middle East; their economies were linked, and their international alliances were mostly shared. They even participated in joint military exercises.
In a region divided by religious conflicts, their partnership was an encouraging example to other nations and a stabilizing force in the region.
But Turkey and Israel drifted apart following the IDF's incursions into Gaza in 2007 and 2008. Israel's military campaign there, conducted in response to rocket fire from Palestinian militants, was described by the UN as disproportionate and excessive. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also condemned the attacks, the relationship between Ankara and Jerusalem grew icy.
Human rights issues in Gaza have since become a point of contention between the two nations. Ever since the militant group Hamas came into power in Gaza in 2007, Israel has implemented a blockade against the region, stifling the economy there and encouraging the growth of an underground black market.
Smoke On The Water
It was this blockade that motivated two activist groups to send ships to deliver supplies to Gaza in the spring of 2010. The international Free Gaza Movement joined forces with a Turkish non-governmental organization called the ?nsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve ?nsani Yard?m Vakf? (IHH), and together they organized a flotilla of six vessels to depart from Cyprus on May 30.
The next day, IDF naval vessels spotted the ships and directed them to either turn back or be escorted to Ashdod, an Israeli city about 20 miles north of the Gaza strip. After the activists refused to change course, their six vessels were commandeered by IDF forces.
On the Mavi Marmara, a vessel full of IHH members, Reuters reports that the activists put up an especially strong resistance. Protesters fought with knives and clubs to protect their ship, and the IDF rejoinder was fatal. Eight Turks and one Turkish-American lost their lives.
Erdogan called the tragedy an incident of state terrorism and recalled Turkey's ambassador from Tel Aviv, vowing to downgrade its ties with Israel.
Nearly two years later, Turkey's indictment further deepens the conflict, making it clear that Ankara has no plans to dial down its tough talk on Israeli aggression.
Israel responded by turning to its European allies and courting NATO sympathies. Haaretz reports that during a meeting in Jerusalem with German President Joachim Gauck, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel was exercising restraint in the face of provocations from Turkey.
We hope the European nations will put Turkey back in its place and prevent wild behavior by the NATO member that has gone off course and is behaving contradictorily to all acceptable international laws, he said.
Lieberman has previously criticized Turkey for opportunism, alleging that Erdogan is pursuing a position as a regional Islamic leader in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Eyes To The East
Turkey has been a secular country since it was established as a republic in 1923, but Islam plays a significant role in its public discourse. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now in power there; both Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul are leading members, and three consecutive parliamentary elections have established the AKP as the popular favorite.
Though the party portrays itself as pro-Western and emphatically secular, AKP has Islamist roots and a tendency toward social conservatism. Gul himself was the nation's first politician with an Islamist background to ascend to the presidency; his wife, Hayrunisa Gul, wears a headscarf and is the only Turkish first lady ever to do so. That those headscarves are still nominally banned for women who work in the public sector is a testament to ongoing debates within Turkey regarding the role Islam should play in government policy.
Those internal debates are reflected in the country's diplomatic policies. In the midst of a tumultuous Arab Spring, Turkey seeks to establish itself as a regional leader. It has strengthened its relationships with many Middle Eastern states; for other Muslim-majority countries, it serves as a model for democracy. Turkey's ongoing support for the residents of Gaza has earned Erdogan and his government a fair share of admiration across the region.
But in recent years, this inclination to maintain economic and political connections to neighboring countries has put a slight strain on Turkey's historically strong ties with the West. The NATO member was uncertain about a Libyan intervention in 2011, at first pointedly refusing to intervene before eventually calling for Gaddafi's resignation. Similarly, Erdogan has so far been hesitant to make an outright call for Syria's Bashar Al-Assad to step down.
In short, the country is in the process of fine-tuning its approach to foreign diplomacy. Considering its potentially compromising position at the crossroads of East and West, Turkey exercises an enviable autonomy. But as Israel watches a valuable ally slip away, it is disinclined to appreciate Ankara's realignment.
Following the flotilla incident in 2010, a spokesman for Foreign Minister Lieberman's political party explained the situation to the Christian Science Monitor. We were good friends for a decade, and now they are changing their policy. It's not our fault. This flotilla is just an excuse; it could be something else. Israel is paying the price of the new Turkish policy to receive more popularity in the Muslim world.''
Monday's indictment is not likely to result in court action, reports Haaretz. The IDF members are not seen as criminals in their home country, and so they will not be extradited for trial. But the symbolism of the court's announcement will not go unheeded; it is one more indication that Turkey's regional ambitions are not necessarily tied to those of Israel, or the West.