One of the most serious casualties of Israel's offensive against Hamas is the rupture between America's two foremost military Middle East allies, Turkey and Israel. This falling-out is extremely detrimental and unlikely to be mended as long as Recep Tayyip Erdogan is Turkey's prime minister.
For six months, Erdogan sponsored indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, initiated by Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. Nothing came of the talks, but the Turkish premier enjoyed the role of mediator.
On Dec. 22, Olmert flew to Ankara for dinner with Erdogan and an appeal to arrange for the talks to be switched to a direct channel. He spent six hours trying to persuade the Turkish leader to issue a statement to this effect. Erdogan was unmoved.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, the senior Turkish mediator Daoud Togalu was sitting in the next room and holding an open line to Damascus and the Syrian delegate to the talks, Riyad Daoudi.
Togalu paid out a running report on the Olmert-Erdogan conversation. But the Syrian official did not bother to brief the presidential office in Damascus, because he had been armed in advance with strict orders dictated by president Bashar Assad in person to block any suggestion of direct talks with Israel at any level.
The Israeli prime minister, catching on that his host had lined up with the Syrian president, returned home tired and disappointed.
Our sources in Ankara and Jerusalem disclose that during their conversation, the Turkish leader asked how Israel was planning to handle Hamas and its missile blitz from the Gaza Strip. The question arose because three days earlier, Hamas had blasted Ashkelon and Sderot with 21 missiles and rockets, shortly after Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal announced formally that the six-month “truce” negotiated with Israel through Egypt was over.
Olmert calmed Erdogan's concern by assuring him that Israel was not about to start a military operation in Gaza and that he knew how to silence the hawks at home.
Israel accused of “disrespect” for Turkey
On Dec. 24, the day after Olmert returned from Ankara, Hamas unleashed a 60-missile and mortar barrage on a line of Israeli Negev communities as well as Ashkelon port, Sderot and Netivot.
The following day, a Lebanese fellah discovered 8 brand-new Iranian-made rockets with the markings of factory serial numbers in a pit. They were rigged to fire at the northern coastal town of Nahariya from a point near the border.
Friday, Dec. 26, Olmert summoned defense minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni for a secret conclave in Tel Aviv to discuss the security deterioration on two fronts. They decided there and then that the time for restraint was over. The next day, Saturday, Dec. 27, Israeli bombers were thundering over the Gaza Strip.
The Turkish prime minister was livid. He felt cheated by Olmert , who five days earlier had promised him that no military action was afoot for Gaza. A seething Erdogan said publicly only: “We also told [Olmert] that we could offer help with Egypt in disputes concerning Israel-Palestine and Gaza-Israel.”
He then accused Israel of “merciless” attacks and “disrespect” toward Turkey, which has been exerting efforts for regional peace, by launching the attacks only days after the two prime ministers had met.
In private, he was more scathing towards Israel and its prime minister, accusing him of stabbing him in the back and denouncing the Gaza attacks as war crimes.
That was not the end of Erdogan's anger. He forced deputy chairman of the Turkish-Israeli Inter-parliamentary Friendship group, Egemen Bagis, to resign as a mark of protest against the Israeli air strikes in Gaza.
Next, he announced he was embarking on a truce mission around Arab capitals and deliberately left Jerusalem off his schedule. From that moment on, he began taking the lead of an emerging anti-Israel Arab front taking shape.
Wednesday, Dec. 31, he was in Damascus for talks with president Bashar Assad, followed by Amman and meetings with King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Thursday, he joined Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and Saturday, he is due to fly to Riyadh to meeting with King Abdullah.
The close Turkish-Israeli military pact in jeopardy
Asked in Damascus if his itinerary included Jerusalem, Erdogan said he had no such plans at the moment.
“Turkey is deeply concerned by the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza and the Middle East's entry into a spiral of violence,” he said.
In Ankara, president Abdullah Gul pulled out the stops to bring the military, which has worked closely with Israel's generals for decades, round to the government line.
A written statement was issued on Dec. 31, to the effect that Turkey's military leadership has decided to join the government in its call for an immediate end to Israel's attacks in Gaza.
“The meeting presided over by president Gul and the National Security Council brought together Turkey's top civilian and military leaders.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that the Turkish prime minister appears to be angry enough to call off the regular joint Turkish-Israeli maneuvers.
If he perseveres in bringing the relationship to crisis point, the repercussions for US Middle East policy will be grave.
1. For years, the intimate military cooperation between Ankara and Jerusalem was a linchpin of Washington's regional security: Israeli fighters have been stationed and trained at Turkish air bases and Israeli warships docked at Turkish naval bases – and the reverse. These links may be about to be suspended.
2. The US, Turkey and Israel maintain close intelligence-sharing relations for the war on terror. These relations may also be tossed out.
3. According to information reaching Washington and Jerusalem, the Turkish prime minister is aligning his Middle East stance with that of French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, both of whom have chosen to turn their backs on Washington and its Middle East positions.
Last-minute bulletin: When Erdogan arrived in Cairo Thursday, Jan. 1, in the course of his mission to mediate a truce in Gaza, he was met by an enraged Hosni Mubarak, who turned on him and asked what he was playing at by siding with the worst enemies of Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.