ANKARA (Reuters) - A raid by Israeli commandos on a Gaza-bound aid convoy has plunged already crumbling ties between Israel and its long-time Muslim ally Turkey to a new low.
The killing of more than 10 activists, reportedly including several Turks, on a Turkish vessel stirred protests in Istanbul.
Ankara, which had supported the pro-Palestinian convoy, has reacted with fury, cancelling joint military exercises, recalling its ambassador to Israel and successfully calling for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
The fallout could have repercussions for U.S. policies in the region.
Below are some questions and answers on how the raid can affect Turkey-Israel ties.
Israel and Turkey have a long and close military alliance and economic relationship. Bilateral trade reached $2.5 billion in 2009, with Turkey buying military hardware from the Jewish state. Analysts say their relationship, though complex, offers too many advantages to both countries to be forsaken easily.
Turkish and Israeli officials have in the past said they will remain allies as long as their interests are aligned.
The two countries share intelligence on common security threats such as al Qaeda. However, since the Islamist-leaning AK Party of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan took office in 2002 relations have been strained, notably as Turkey deepened ties with fellow Muslim countries, including Iran and Syria.
With Turkey’s prospects for joining the European Union growing more elusive, some analysts have wondered whether Turkey was turning East instead of West under Erdogan.
Turkey has warned of possible “irreversible consequences in our relations.” With public anger seething, Erdogan is likely to take a harsh line against Israel.
Erdogan became a hero across the Islamic world for publicly criticizing Israeli policy toward Palestinians. With an election due by July next year, and opinion polls showing high unemployment has dented support, a strong stand against Israel could go down well with voters.
HOW WILL THE FALLOUT AFFECT U.S. POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST?
The alliance between Turkey and Israel, two regional military heavyweights, has been a boon to U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. Any breakdown would complicate the equation.
The United States has long sought Turkey’s soft power as a secular, democratic Muslim state to counter Islamist militancy in the region.
Turkey has been a major player in Arab-Israeli peacemaking and mediated indirect talks between Syria and Israel. The talks were suspended after an Israeli incursion into Palestinian-run Gaza in January 2009, and prospects for renewing those talks seem dim.
While welcoming Turkish mediation with Syria, Washington has clashed with Turkey over how to tackle the Islamist Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Washington wants to isolate Hamas, while Ankara feels the Islamist group should not be excluded.
Analysts say ties deteriorated sharply after Israel’s Gaza offensive, which Erdogan called a crime against humanity and prompted Turkey to bar Israel from participating in a NATO military exercise. Erdogan further alienated Israel by hosting Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and referring to him as a “good friend.” Israel was angered by Turkey’s attempts to mediate in Tehran’s nuclear dispute with the West, arguing such steps undermined international efforts to isolate Tehran. Analysts have also said anti-Semitism in Turkey is on the rise after the war in Gaza.
Additional reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit