Gaza disaster tenses Turkey, Israel ties in 2009
Although PM Erdogan said that he left the Davos forum due to the wrong attitude of the moderator, the meeting was noted in minds of millions as a reaction to Israel after Gaza war.
A few days before Israel's 22 days long military operation in Gaza that began on December 27, 2008, the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Ankara.
Olmert paid a visit of farewell to Turkey, after he resigned on charges of corruption, just as he did to other countries across the globe. Olmert met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and was received by Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
Erdogan and Olmert's smiling faces and their hand shake led many to think that peace talks between Israel and Syria, indirectly mediated by Turkey, were entering a new phase but the opposite occurred. Perhaps December 22, the date when the photo of the two leaders was taken, was the picture showing the frozen relations between the two countries.
After having returned to Israel from Turkey, Olmert gave an order to the Israeli military to stage an operation in Gaza. The operation involved air attacks and, after a week, Israeli military sent land troops into Gaza. The operation lasted 22 days and, after international pressure, it was ended by Israel's declaration of one-sided cease-fire. A day later Hamas and other Palestinian groups declared cease-fire as well.
The toll of Israel's military operation in Gaza was very heavy: More than 1434 Palestinians, a third of them were children. Also, many of the others were women and civilian police officers, lost lives. The number of injured was around 5,000. Around 4,000 homes were damaged in Gaza due to the Israeli operation.
Prime Minister Erdogan refused all allegations from the Turkish opposition that he was aware ahead of time of the Israeli military operation in Gaza. Erdogan had given a statement to daily Washington Post newspaper about his talks with Olmert in Turkey. Implying peace talks between Israel and Syria, Erdogan said that "that night we were very close to an agreement between the sides. Olmert had told us that he would consult with his friends in Israel and get back to me. At a time when we were expecting Olmert's reply, bombs were being dropped on Gaza on December 27". Olmert said that he was not informed about the Israeli military operation at the time when he spoke to Erdogan in Turkey.
The heavy toll of the military operation in Gaza received harsh reactions from many countries of the world, including Turkey. Turkey's close relations with all the sides in the Middle East were regarded as crucial for peace in the region and Turkey did everything it could to facilitate peace.
At a time when efforts were being made for peace in the Middle East, Israel's military operation in Gaza led to massive protests in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan referred to the Israeli military operation as a serious blow to global peace. Erdogan said that Israel's killing of defenseless children and women and innocent individuals, bombing of civilian targets and use of disproportionate force were unacceptable.
Prime minister Erdogan's outburst
A panel discussion attended by Prime Minister Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos at the end of January was a turning point in Turkey-Israel relations. Erdogan disagreed with Peres's comments which defended Israel's operation in Gaza and claimed that Hamas had violated a cease-fire. Erdogan said at the panel discussion that he was not given adequate time to express his views. Erdogan told Peres that "you kill women and children" and Erdogan left the panel discussion after these words. Although Prime Minister Erdogan said that he left the panel discussion due to the attitude of the moderator, the Davos meeting was noted in minds of millions as a reaction to Israel.
The month of February was the scene of Israeli elections so vital for the future of the Middle East. The people of Israel held an early election on February 10 after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned due to allegations of corruption and receiving bribes and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni could not establish the government. The successful emergence of far rightist parties from the elections made it possible for the leader of the Likud Party, Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, to form the government with 27 deputies although Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party won 28 seats in the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) out of a total of 120 deputies. Likud's leader Netanyahu offered the leader of the Labor Party, Ehud Barak, the position of Minister of Defense and thus a coalition was formed. The coalition received a vote of confidence from the Knesset on March 31 and began working.
As the Netanyahu government began serving, the Palestinian side lived through a major disappointment after the Israeli military operation in Gaza, the political uncertainty after the resignation of Olmert and the peace talks that were interrupted.
Netanyahu did not mention a Palestinian state in a speech delivered at the Knesset to thank for the vote of confidence. Netanyahu hid the details of his foreign policy until the speech delivered at the Bar-Ilan University in mid-June. In this speech, Netanyahu signalled that they would say "yes" to a Palestinian state "cleared off weapons" but left the issue of Jerusalem out of his speech. Netanyahu opposed the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. The Palestinian side, reacting to Netanyahu's speech, said that a fair and full peace could not be established after such remarks. Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian official who conducted peace talks, said that Netanyahu's speech was an indication that the peace talks were ended by one side, Israel. Erekat told Netanyahu that Israel would have to wait for a thousand years in order to see a single Palestinian who would support a Palestine as wished by Israel.
Efforts to resume peace talks between Israel and Palestine, including the shuttle diplomacy performed by U.S. President Barack Obama's Special Envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, were hampered by Palestinian insistence on Israel to stop the construction of new residential settlements in the West Bank, including in eastern Jerusalem. Mitchell could not convince Israel on the matter.
The resumption of peace talks between Israel and Palestine seemed to be difficult. U.S. President Barack Obama brought together Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas together at the White House on September 22. However, it was not possible to see Netanyahu and Abbas together after this date.
"Anatolian Eagle" military exercise
The coldness in Israel-Turkey relations brought up by the military operation in Gaza gained a new dimension when the international segment of the "Anatolian Eagle" military exercise in Konya was cancelled and after allegations that the cancellation was made in order to leave Israel, a regular participant of the exercise, out of the military exercise in 2009. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that his government could not remain silent to the incidents taking place in Gaza but that relations with Israel would return to what they were before the military operation in Gaza if Israel turned its face to peace.
The unexpected cancellation of the military exercise was defined as the continuation of tension between Turkey and Israel. A tv series on Turkey's state-run TRT, "Ayrilik" (Separation), that was aired as of October and covering stories of Israeli-Palestinian clashes, led to an anti-Turkish campaign in Israel after many believed that the series fomented anti-Semitism. Israeli unions, which had great influence on the holiday destination of members, took Turkey out of their campaigns. The number of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey dropped 40 percent in 2009 when compared to the previous year.
Foreign Minister Davutoglu's cancellation of a trip to Jerusalem in October that was to take place to attend a conference hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres after the Israeli side refused to permit Davutoglu to enter Gaza was an incident recorded as part of the crisis in relations.
Around the same period, the Israeli Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor, Binyamin "Fuad" Ben Eliezer, arrived in Turkey in return of a Joint Economic Committee meeting held in Israel in 2007. Eliezer's visit was the first one made on a high level by an Israeli official to Turkey in 2009. Eliezer carried an Israeli message to invite President Abdullah Gul to Israel. Eliezer gave the message that Turkey could resume its mediator role between Israel and Syria.
However Eliezer's efforts received opposite messages from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu indicated that Israel would prefer direct talks with Syria. "If there is a need for a mediator, this would not be Erdogan, whom I believe is not impartial, and it could be someone like French President Nicolas Sarkozy," Netanyahu said.
It is possible to argue that the year 2009 was not a good one for Israel when its relations with the Palestinians and Syrians are considered. Such relations in 2010 and beyond directly depend on Israel's attitude in the region.
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