Turkey put former Israeli military chiefs on trial in absentia for ordering a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship, prolonging a dispute between the former allies even as their interests in the region converge.
Islamist demonstrators cheered outside the Istanbul court today at the start of the trial. Hundreds of supporters of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, or IHH, the Islamic charity that organized the Gaza aid ship, waved Palestinian flags and shouted anti-Israeli slogans, television footage showed. Israel outlawed the IHH in 2008 on grounds of alleged ties to Hamas.
The suspects, including ex-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, are charged with “inciting to kill monstrously and by torturing” in the May 2010 raid. Judge Umit Kaptan said today that they couldn’t be summoned to court. Israel says extremists aboard the ship attacked commandos seeking to stop it from breaking the Gaza blockade. Several plaintiffs told the court about their ordeal during the Israeli raid, which left nine Turks dead, Anatolia said today.
While Turkey won’t be able to enforce any verdict against the Israelis, the case highlights the lack of progress in mending ties between the U.S. allies at a time when their regional interests coincide. Both countries cite concern about risks from the escalating revolt against Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Turkey has backed away from its friendship with Israel’s chief enemy, Iran.
“Whether they like it or not, Turkey and Israel have increasingly overlapping threat perceptions,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. “The two countries share a problem: what happens after Assad,” while Turkey has recently “taken a less benign view of Iran.”
Israel has threatened military attacks on Iran to halt its nuclear program, and warned of the risk that Syria’s ally Hezbollah may get hold of its chemical weapons. Turkey is backing the rebels fighting to oust Assad, Iran’s ally, and has retaliated with artillery fire after the shelling of Turkish soil by Syrian forces.
Turkey and Israel have kept business channels open during their dispute, allowing trade to flourish. It reached a record $4.4 billion last year, up from $2.6 billion in 2009, and was about $3 billion in the first nine months of 2012, according to official Turkish data.
Economic ties might have been closer still without the political tensions, which have “scared away some foreign investors” who would have been interested in projects such as the proposed third Bosporus bridge, said Ahmet Reyiz Yilmaz. The chief executive of Yilmazlar Holding, which has $1 billion of construction projects in Israel, spoke in his office in Ankara, decorated with pictures of him shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders.
The standoff also hurt agricultural ties, though in the defense industry the impact “was marginal because most of the big projects were already completed,” said Nurhan Yonezer, co-author of a study of Turkey’s economy after the 2001 crisis. Turkey has bought drones and other army equipment from Israel.
Tourism, meanwhile, has slumped as Israelis shunned Turkey, once a favorite destination. The number of visitors dropped to 80,000 last year from about 500,000 a year before 2009, according to the Israeli Embassy in Ankara.
Ties can’t be “normalized” until all Turkey’s demands are met, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Berlin last week. Turkey says Israel must apologize for the killings, pay compensation and end the blockade of Gaza.
Today’s case involves charges against Ashkenazi, now chairman of Shemen Oil and Gas Resources Ltd., as well as former head of the navy Eliezer Marom and military intelligence chiefs Avishai Levi and Amos Yadlin.
Nizar Amer, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy, called the trial “a political show with no judicial credibility.”
“We’ve discussed apology and are willing to discuss it again,” Amer said in a Nov. 2 interview. “For that, we need a constructive approach from both sides.”
Israel, which has expressed regret for the loss of lives, says activists attacked the commandos with metal rods and knives. Turkish authorities, citing autopsy reports, say some of the victims were shot dead from close range and in the back, and that several Israeli commandos could also face separate charges.
Ties deteriorated after Israel’s invasion of Gaza in December 2008. Erdogan, whose party has Islamist roots, accused the Jewish state of using excessive force. Turkey canceled military ties and backed the Palestinian bid for statehood.
Turkey and Israel had previously held joint military exercises. The U.S., which also took part, is keen for a reconciliation but unwilling to “mount direct pressure on Turkey due to fears that it might hurt Turkey-U.S. ties,” said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
While the trial of the Israeli officers may “look like an escalatory step,” behind the scenes Turkish leaders as well as Israelis are increasingly open to a rapprochement, Cagaptay said.
“In the language of the Turks, it’s Ankara saying to the Israelis, ‘apologize and we will drop all this inconvenience and start a new page’,” he said. “The region has changed so much that both countries appear to think they may have bigger fish to fry than each other.”