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TURKEY: War of Words Lost in Translation

ANKARA, Sep 14 2011 (IPS) - Bellicose dialectic between Turkey and Israel reached a new height last week and has precipitated the deteriorating relationship between the two former allies to new depth. But it is for the moment unclear whether Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threats to cut the Israeli navy’s perceived power and presence to size in Eastern Mediterranean represent a true tactical decision in Ankara’s strategy to expand its influence in the Middle East, or a mere coup-de- theatre for domestic and Arab consumption.

The crisis began ten days ago, following the publication on Sep. 2 of the Palmer Report by the United Nations (UN), which qualified Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip as legal under international law. Israel imposed the blockade in 2007 after Hamas took control of this Palestinian territory from Fatah, a rival revolutionary faction. Egypt also reacted adversely to this change by closing the border with Gaza. The decision was recently repealed, to allow cross-border circulation by individuals only.

Hamas, founded in 1987 in Syria, is a spin-off of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian religious militant movement. It is considered by the United States, the European Union, Israel and a few other states a terrorist group.

Relations between Ankara and Jerusalem became sour at the end of May 2010, when the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) boarded a Turkish vessel, Mavi Marmara, which was the flagship of a flotilla attempting to break the blockade and deliver humanitarian goods to the Gaza Strip. Encountering resistance by some of the passengers, IDF commandos opened fire, killing nine Turkish citizens.

Turkey has insisted on receiving an official apology from Israel, compensation for the victims, and lifting of the blockade. Israel has so far offered to express regret for the loss of life due to “operational mishaps” and to provide limited monetary damages to the families of the deceased. U.S. State Secretary Hilary Clinton has in the past 15 months tried to reconcile the positions of the Israeli and Turkish PMs, but the release of the Palmer Report triggered Erdogan’s ire to a level unexpected, in all evidence, by Washington.

The conclusions of the UN investigation committee on the incident were due for publication early this year, but their communication was delayed, first on the request of Turkey, which was heading to national elections last June, then by Israel, whose prime minister is facing serious domestic unrest because of the country’s housing shortages and rising cost of living. But it proved difficult for the United Nations to hold on to it any longer.

The Palmer Report grants legitimacy to the naval blockade of Gaza by Israel and reprimands IDF for excessive use of force against civilians. Turkey has reacted by rejecting the validity of the verdict and threatening to take the matter against Israel to the International Court of Justice, though this got confused with the ICC, which is the International Criminal Court.

The threat last week from Turkish President Abdullah Gul speaking to Arab TV, may genuinely reflect Ankara’s wish, but has very little legal foundation, according to international law experts here and in Washington consulted by IPS. The ICC does not operate like a regular court, before which one can file a complaint and initiate a trial. It is at the discretion of its prosecutor to determine whether an investigation can be opened against a party, based on information obtained from another party.

A prerequisite for this is that the accusations concern a war crime, crimes against humanity, or genocide. Moreover, there is doubt as to the court’s jurisdiction, as Israel has not ratified the treaty creating the ICC.

Turkish officials were quick to point that there had been a translation error in the declaration and that Gul had meant the International Court of Justice (ICJ), not ICC. This avenue still presents legal standing problems, as neither Turkey nor Israel accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the court.

As soon as the Palmer Report was released Turkey downgraded diplomatic relations among the states to the level of second secretary. Ankara had recalled its ambassador to Jerusalem last year.

Last week Erdogan announced that all trade between the countries was suspended, a decision rephrased soon thereafter to limit the sanction to military purchases only. Israel is a major supplier of defence solutions to Turkey. Ankara also cancelled all military cooperation agreements with IDF, many of which go back to the 1980s.

Friday of last week saw additional escalation, with Erdogan accusing Israel of abusing its naval power and announcing that the Turkish navy had been instructed to escort any maritime convoys, flying the country’s flag, attempting to break the blockade and deliver supplies to the Palestinians in Gaza. He reportedly added that Turkish warships would be routinely present in Eastern Mediterranean in order to ensure free navigation in the region.

Later in the day government officials corrected the meaning of the declaration, taken by foreign diplomats and observers as intent by Turkey to police international waters, as inaccurate translation of the prime minister’s interviews with different media consolidated and used out of context by press agencies.

Netanyahu and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak downplayed the Turkish missives, preferring to opt for a cooler attitude. Netanyahu, however, reassured his constituents that the Israeli navy is “a long and powerful arm” of the country.

The majority of the Turkish public seem to be taking a distance from all this. Trade with Israel remained high in 2010, in spite of the Mavi Marmara incident, at 2.7 billion dollars, although the travel and hospitality industries were negatively impacted, with tens of thousands of Israelis booked to visit Turkey changing their destination.

Despite the rhetoric, prospects of an armed conflict between Turkey and Israel are slim. The organisers of the 2010 flotilla said over the weekend that they had no plans to mount another humanitarian expedition in the foreseeable future. Palestinian groups might, of course, charter Turkish flagships and send them to Gaza, in which case Ankara’s threat would be put to test. But the U.S. Sixth Fleet, dedicated to the Mediterranean, would certainly act as a buffer to avoid any direct contact between the Israeli and Turkish navies.

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