The Turkish indictment of Israeli officials for the Mavi Marmara raid looks like a cynical ploy by Recep Tayyip Erdogan to shore up his popularity.
An eleventh-hour Turkish lawfare initiative may prevent Ankara’s long-awaited rapprochement with Israel. Days shy of the four-year anniversary of the 2010 Mavi Marmara raid, the Istanbul High Criminal Court on May 26 indicted four former top Israeli military commanders for their involvement in the ill-fated flotilla to Gaza. In a 144-page indictment, the Turkish court ordered the arrests of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of General Staff Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Naval Forces Commander Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom, Israeli military intelligence chief Major Gen. Amos Yadlin and Air Forces Intelligence head Brigadier Gen. Avishai Levi.
It is extremely unlikely that any of the Israeli officers will ever do time behind bars, of course. Interpol is unlikely to respond positively to the Turkish court’s request that it issue a red notice, which would direct countries around the world to seek the arrest of the Israeli commanders. However, the move threatens to upend a crucial moment for Turkish-Israeli rapprochement efforts: According to the Turkish and Israeli press, a $20 million compensation deal for the families of 10 Turks killed by Israeli commandos during the Mavi Marmara incident was "imminent," and normalization of ties was expected to follow.
The Turkish charity responsible for organizing the provocative flotilla, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), was reportedly among the primary actors pressing the Turkish government to shun a deal. Last week, IHH lawyer Ugur Yildirim told reporters that the foundation had been "in close contact" with the Turkish government and had warned the authorities against dropping the charges.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had nothing to do with the indictment. But given the strong relationship between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the IHH, as well as its increasing control over the Turkish judiciary, not everyone believes him. At least one Israeli official believes the decision to go forward with the indictment came directly from the prime minister.
Even if Erdogan was not involved in the judicial ruling, he will directly benefit in the court of public opinion. Turkey will hold its first presidential elections through a popular vote in August and it is widely believed that Erdogan, the dominant figure in Turkish politics since he became premier in 2003, will run — and that he will win. The indictment will play well with his base: conservative Turkish voters who reject the normalization process. A Pew Research Center survey in spring 2013 found that only 2 percent of Turks viewed Israel favorably, while 86 percent had a negative view.
This is not the first time that Erdogan has used Israel as a way to drum up political support for his party. In a speech delivered in January 2009 before Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Turkey, Erdogan explicitly asked that Israel be barred from the United Nations. There was also the Davos incident that same year, where Erdogan stormed offstage during a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres, telling the Nobel Peace Prize-winner, "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill."
In June 2010, following the flotilla incident, Erdogan delivered a fiery speech at the Turkish parliament in which he warned Israel not to "test Turkey’s patience" and, to the delight of his conservative political base, accused the Israeli government of massacring Palestinians. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal’s invitation to the AKP convention in 2012 was also an apparent success for Erdogan; AKP voters cheered the Hamas leader as he took the stage.
Israel’s leaders certainly understand that the indictment is a political tool for Erdogan during an election season. But even this might not necessarily stop them from moving forward with the compensation package. Indeed, a signed deal would likely require Turkey to pass legislation that would render the court order invalid.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not appear sold on the terms of the package, however. Although negotiators finalized the deal in February, the Israeli leader has neither signed it nor brought it to a vote. This unquestionably stems from his cabinet’s mistrust in the Erdogan government. The Israeli government understands that putting the flotilla in the past does not pave the way for a rosy alliance with Turkey in the future.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has quietly become a harbor for terrorism finance and other activity that threatens Israel. Most notably, Turkey allowed Iran to process $12 billion in gas-for-gold transfers, in an effort to circumvent international sanctions designed to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Istanbul Police Department officials also told Turkish media that Turkey’s Finance Ministry was investigating another $118 billion in illegal transactions that benefited Iran. Needless to say, this has undermined Israel’s interests, given Iran’s longstanding antipathy for the Jewish state.
In addition, senior figures from Hamas and businessmen accused of financing al Qaeda are alleged to be roaming around in Turkey with Ankara’s knowledge. A German court has also upheld Berlin’s ban on the IHH, due to the fact that it contributed funds to Hamas. And while these issues were not what prompted it, the international watchdog body responsible for setting global standards for combating terrorism finance has found Ankara in gross violation of its responsi
To be sure, strategic and economic interests may nevertheless pave the way for a loveless Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. But the Netanyahu government has no illusions: Erdogan’s Turkey will never be the ally to Israel today that it was in the 1990s. Under an Islamist leadership that offers an anti-Israeli narrative for every domestic crisis, Turkey has become a hostile environment for Israel — and appears likely to remain that way as long as Erdogan dominates politics in Ankara.