Turkey Protests Israel's Raid On Gaza Flotilla

Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group talks to Steve Inskeep about how Turkey is responding to Israel's attack on the aid flotilla to Gaza. Pope says that when Israel has a prime minister who's more hostile to the Palestinians, Turkey becomes more supportive of the Palestinians.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The raid in the flotilla has jeopardized Israel's relationship with an important Muslim ally, Turkey. In Istanbul, angry crowds tried to storm the Israeli consulate. The Turkish government immediately recalled its ambassador and withdrew from several joint military exercises with Israel.

To find out more about what's happening in Turkey, we turn to Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group. He joins us from Istanbul.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. HUGH POPE (International Crisis Group): Good morning.

INSKEEP: One thing to try to understand here, I suppose, is what exactly was Turkey's involvement with this aid effort?

Mr. POPE: It was done on a Turkish flag vessel, a very large Turkish cruise liner and a lot of the people on board were of Turkish nationality and the original port of departure was in Turkey as well. But I should stress that this was organized by a private group, a group that's been giving aid to Palestinians in Gaza for some time. There were no Turkish officials or members of parliament on board as far as we know.

Turkish government did give moral support for this enterprise, but the M.P.s and such like who have been on previous aid missions to Gaza were not visible. So I think that showed some kind of distance. However, at this point, where we have the brutal assault on the vessels, and obviously the killings, has had a remarkable effect on Turkey in that the whole country was behind the attempt to send the aid, and the opposition, which never finds anything nice to say about the government, is giving its full support.

INSKEEP: And so in the public's mind, in Turkey, it's almost as if this was an attack on Turkey, you're saying.

Mr. POPE: It is indeed seen that way, and it's obviously conspiracy theories are rife in Turkey, but immediately Israel is being linked to all kinds of other hostile local insurgencies waged against it. This obviously marks a new low point in the relationship that has been declining for some time. I mean you have the Turkish foreign minister talking about Israel committing acts of piracy, telling the U.N. Security Council that Israel has blood on its hands, the foreign ministry statement talking about irreparable consequences, the prime minister talking about Israel waging state terrorism. You know, these are not individually particularly new statements by the Turkish government, but they do mark a real low point and it's very difficult to see how these can be repaired.

On the other hand, we should always be very conscious that Turkey's relationship with Israel has its ups and downs. And I think that if there should come a point where Israel returns with full good faith to the Arab-Israeli peace table, then at that point I think that when we can say that it will be repaired.

INSKEEP: Well, the mere fact that Turkey had an ambassador in Israel to be recalled suggests that Turkey's relations have been warmer with Israel than many other Muslim states. But what has set the two countries on a path to confrontation again and again over recent years?

Mr. POPE: If you go back, it's each time that Israel has attacked the Palestinians or that it's seen by international and Turkish public opinion as being unfair to the Palestinians, you will see a Turkish reaction.

INSKEEP: Do these two countries still have substantial commercial relations even if their diplomatic relations go sour?

Mr. POPE: Commercial exchange is about two and a half billion dollars a year. This is less than one percent of Turkey's annual trade turnover. At times Israeli tourists have been very important to Turkey's tourism industry, and indeed, the fact that this confrontation has happened in the sea off Gaza means that 15,000 Israelis have canceled their holidays, cruise ships are not stopping in Turkish ports. So there is a cost to what has happened, but I think that the main cost for Israel is actually going to be more in terms of how this incident has highlighted its international isolation.

I mean if you look at the long-term pattern - in the old days, Israel could have a big problem with its Arab neighbors, but had a relationship with Iran and Turkey and the West. Now, it lost Iran in 1979. It appears to be losing Turkey now. And this incident has sparked a wave of condemnation in very many countries around the world. My own International Crisis Group condemns this kind of unilateral action on the high seas and we condemn the blockade of Gaza as well. And it shows that Israel is having a much harder time and will have a much harder time in putting its case across.

INSKEEP: Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group is in Istanbul. Thanks very much.

Mr. POPE: Thank you.

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