Israel Under Siege

Turkey's punitive diplomacy reinforces the obvious: Israel stands alone in a region increasingly driven by Islamist fervor.

Israel's relations with the Muslim world took a further turn for the worse with Turkey's announcement of the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the downgrading of relations with the Jewish state to the level of second secretaries. This followed the publication on Friday of the United Nations report on the 2010 Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish flotilla in which nine Turks, one of them an American citizen, were shot dead.

Ankara had for months demanded that Israel apologize for the killings, which it called a "crime,” lift its blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip—which the flotilla was trying to run—and pay compensation to the victims. In months of secret negotiations, Israel agreed to pay compensation and voiced its "regret" over the deaths, but refused to apologize or to lift the blockade.

The 105-page UN report, issued after an investigation by a four-man panel headed by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer and including a former Turkish diplomat, largely vindicated Israel's actions, which triggered Turkish anger and its punitive diplomatic measures. The report called on Israel to express "regret" and pay compensation—but not to "apologize"—and ruled that the Israeli blockade of Gaza was legal. Turkey flatly dismissed the report and its findings.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that Turkey was also suspending all defense-related agreements with Israel. During the past two decades, Israel refurbished Turkish tanks and aircraft and supplied the Turks with equipment, including a fleet of drones that they have used to fight Kurdish insurgents along the Turkey-Iraq border. There has also been steady intelligence cooperation between the two countries in countering terrorism by such groups as the Kurdish PKK and the Lebanese-based Hezbollah. All of this is now in jeopardy.

Israel reacted to the Turkish downgrading of relations with unwonted reticence, hoping to stave off further Turkish steps, but there is deep concern in Jerusalem that the Turks will now pursue legal measures against the Israelis who directed or took part in the raid, in which naval commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, the flagship of the flotilla. The Israeli raiders were met by organized, violent resistance, according to the Palmer report, and responded with live fire. The report termed the commandos' response "excessive and unreasonable" but Israeli spokesmen defened the commandos' actions, saying they were attacked by some of the passengers and responded appropriately in the context of what was a "chaotic, nighttime combat situation." Turkish diplomats said they would take up the matter of the blockade in the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

The Palmer committee ruled that the blockade, geared to preventing the smuggling of weapons and terrorists into the Gaza Strip, was "legal" under international law and that its implementation was "appropriate,” given that Palestinian organizations in the Strip, led by Hamas, had for years rocketed Israel's southern border villages and towns. (Rockets from Gaza were still hitting Israeli border towns last week and Hamas continues to call for Israel's destruction.) The committee ruled that the flotilla's attempt to break through the blockade, after repeated Israeli warnings, was "reckless" and motivated apparently by nonhumanitarian concerns. (The organizers of the flotilla claimed that they were trying to bring humanitarian aid to the "needy" Gaza Strip inhabitants; Israel maintained that the Gaza inhabitants were not short of food and medical supplies, and that the flotilla was designed as an anti-Israeli provocation. The Israelis had offered to ship the humanitarian materiel to Gaza after it was offloaded and inspected in an Israeli port.)

Without doubt, Islamist-ruled Turkey's latest "punishment" of Israel will only add to most Israelis' sense of growing siege and embattlement in a region increasingly driven by extremist Islamist fervor and hatred. Recent events in Egypt and along the Egypt-Israel border have only reinforced this feeling. A complete severance of relations by Ankara is seen only as a matter of time.

In the past months, Washington, worried about Turkey's gradual abandonment of the West and its warming relations with Teheran, pressed Israel to appease Ankara by issuing the desired apology. But as one Israeli commentator put it, in the Middle East pride and honor are real assets and registers of strength; apologizing, especially when in the right, would be seen as weakness and inevitably invite further depredations. Anyway, Turkey was hardly in a position to demand apologies from anyone: It would do better to first apologize for its murder, rape and dispossession during the past hundred years of millions of Armenians, Greeks, and Cypriot Greeks and for its ongoing repression of its Kurdish population.