ISTANBUL — The Israeli commando raid Monday on an aid flotilla, which left at least nine Turkish citizens dead, has dragged relations between Israel and Turkey to a new low, political experts here say, threatening to derail diplomatic relations between two close American allies.
Turkey, a NATO member, has long been Israel’s closest friend in the Muslim world, with $3 billion in trade and strong ties between the countries’ militaries and governments. But relations began to deteriorate during Israel’s war inGaza, when Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, publicly sparred with Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Monday’s raid prompted street protests in Turkey and a strong official reaction, with Ankara recalling its ambassador from Israel, summoning Israel’s ambassador and canceling planned joint military exercises. That was enough to raise alarms among analysts here, who said it could seriously jeopardize already battered diplomatic relations between the countries.
“This will be perceived as a kind of declaration of war on Turkey,” said Cengiz Candar, a columnist for Radikal, a Turkish daily. “Political dialogue will cease. It’s not possible to contain the deterioration in relations anymore.”
But it was not yet clear how broad the implications would be. As of Monday evening, Israel’s Ambassador to Turkey had not been asked to leave the country, and Turkey’s foreign minister spoke by phone to Israel’s defense minister — evidence that, at least at some level, diplomatic channels remained open. The leaders of the two countries’ militaries also spoke by telephone, the Turkish military said.
A senior Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said it was possible that Turkey would cut off diplomatic relations, but that it would depend on Israel’s next steps. Turkey expects the immediate release of the activists, the official said, as well as a strong apology from the Israeli government. Neither have been forthcoming, and there were reports late Monday that Israel had arrested some people from the ship.
A senior Israeli official said that it had tried for two weeks to persuade Turkey to stop the flotilla, but that Turkey said it was a non-governmental action that it was powerless to stop. Israel’s ambassador in Turkey, Gabi Levy, did not return a call for comment.
One wild card is Mr. Erdogan, a strong-willed former Islamist who is the driving force behind Turkey’s criticism of Israel and its policy toward the Palestinians. He has pushed a new foreign policy that has taken a more active role in the region, serving as mediator between Israel and Syria. But not all his efforts have been appreciated by the United States, like his recent attempt with Brazil to broker a nuclear deal with Iran.
In a press conference in Santiago, Chile, where he cut short a trip to return to Turkey, he called the raid “inhumane state terrorism,” and said that Israel’s contentions that there had been weapons on the ship were “lies.”
“This attack has clearly shown that Israeli government has no desire for peace in the region,” he said in remarks that were broadcast on Turkish television. But he also called for calm, saying that Jews in Turkey “are our citizens,” and adding that “I want my people to be very sensitive about this.”
The situation is difficult for the United States, which has close relations with both countries and is now in the awkward position of crafting a reaction that avoids alienating either side. Both the United States and Israel use Turkish air space for military exercises. The United States supplies the majority of its Iraq effort from a military base in southern Turkey.
Mr. Erdogan is seen favorably by many in Turkey’s small Jewish community. He encouraged the relationship with Israel, visiting in 2005 with a group of Turkish businessmen and becoming the first Turkish prime minister to visit the office of Turkey’s chief rabbi after a synagogue was bombed in 2003.
But when it comes to Hamas, which controls Gaza, they disagree. Israel views it as a terrorist group and focuses on its doctrinal commitment to destroy the Zionist state. Mr. Erdogan sees other aspects: Hamas began as a grass-roots Islamic movement, and like his own Justice and Development party, also Islamic-inspired, was democratically elected against overwhelming odds.
One Turkish tactic will be to try to garner international condemnation in order to change Israel policies toward Gaza, namely its blockade, Turkish analysts said. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, flew to New York to spearhead Turkey’s efforts to call for a vote on the matter in the United Nations. Turkey became a member of the Security Council last year.
Mr. Candar views the future of relations grimly. The raid provoked outrage among the Turkish public, who thronged Istanbul’s Taksim square and the Israeli consulate, sentiment that Mr. Erdogan could capitalize on in national elections next year. The current governments in Israel and Turkey seem stuck in a cycle of hostility, and Mr. Candar does not see that changing.
The result, he said, is “a huge country of 72 million people that will be transformed into the main anti-Israel power in the region.”
Reporting contributed by Sebnem Arsu in Istanbul and Ethan Bronner in Washington.