Survivors Of The Flotilla Raid Return To Turkey

Hundreds of activists have returned to Turkey. They're survivors from a flotilla of ships that Israeli commandos stopped on the way to Gaza. Turkey is one of the few Muslim nations that has relations with Israel. Asli Aydintasbas, a commentator for a major newspaper in Turkey, talks to Steve Inskeep about the implications of the flotilla crisis for Turkey's domestic political scene.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Thousands of people turned out in Istanbul, today, for a funeral. It was a service for the Turkish activists killed in a confrontation at sea this week. Nine activists, eight Turks and Turkish-born U.S. citizen, died when Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of ships. The ships were carrying the activists and aid toward Palestinians in Gaza. Now, Turkey is one of the few Muslim nations that has relations with Israel. Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish newspaper�columnist, says many Turks are angry now.

Ms. ASLI AYDINTASBAS (Commentator,�Milliyet): We had the parliament convening for condemnation of Israel. And I don't need to tell you that the newspapers and, sort of, public commentators are generally rather outraged. And I think this is the most vocal anti-Israeli moment in Turkish history.

INSKEEP: The most vocal anti-Israeli moment in Turkish history. And we should emphasize again this is a country that has relations with Israel. But I take it that the Gaza situation - Israel's isolation of Gaza - has not been popular where you are.

Ms. AYDINTASBAS: Well, its' been in the works, I think, the sentiment building up. It has something to do with the situation in Gaza, but also with the fact that we have a conservative Islamist government. So, I mean, the government has been very critical of Israel's embargo in Gaza, the blockading of Gaza.

And, in fact, last year in 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan got into a very public spat with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos. I mean, he called Shimon Peres a liar and you know how to kill children and only that. And then he walked out. So this almost unleashed the kind of anti-Israeli sentiment that's been underneath the surface in this country.

INSKEEP: Well, it's an interesting point, because we're talking about a matter of foreign policy here. But does it become at some point a matter of domestic politics in a country like Turkey?

Ms. AYDINTASBAS: It's - this is going to be a huge thing in domestic politics. And I think the government is going to - we're going to have elections next year and the governing Islamist Party votes have been somewhat dwindling.

And now it gives them a chance - it gives people a chance to say we made sure our people they arrested got back. So we got a condemnation of Israel. We rallied international support. We are working for the people of Gaza.

I should tell you that we did not have a Gaza issue until last year or so. I mean, you know, obviously everybody in the Middle East feels very strongly about Palestinians and their suffering. But that said, Gaza was not part of our foreign policy equation, was not part of our domestic equation. Suddenly it is a key component of our foreign policy, of our relations with Israel.

INSKEEP: Is there a broader thing going on here in Turkish politics as well? Because Turkey, as you know very well, has been seeking membership in the European Union, has been greeted with a great deal of skepticism, and is sometimes seen as, perhaps, turning, for friendship, to Arab countries, which might have a different set of polices and want a different set of policies to of Turkey.

Ms. AYDINTASBAS: Look, there is a broader strategic shift, quite a tectonic one I would say, which is that Turkey is not solely looking to the West for its future and alliances. We are a candidate to the European Union.

But what's been happening over the past couple of years, is something like a return to the Middle East of this - we - when the Ottoman Empire ended about a hundred years ago, the motto for the New Republic was we're going to be secular, we're going to be modernized and we're going to go west, west, west.

And suddenly people have been like, you know, European don't really want us, and we have all the former Ottoman lands that we've turned our back to. And maybe we need to build closer ties.

INSKEEP: Asli Aydintasbas is a commentator for a major Turkish newspaper Milliyet.

Thanks very much.

Ms. AYDINTASBAS: Thank you.

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