Tourism between Turkey and Israel at breaking point


Israel’s assault on an aid convoy sailing to Gaza has pushed already strained relations with Turkey to breaking point, with trade, tourism and defence ties all likely to suffer, analysts said Monday.

Israeli trade unions might renew their explicit boycott of Turkey as a destination for their members, in view of Ankara’s role in organizing the aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip.

“The repurcussions will be at a scale that will not be possible to repair in a short time … Turkish-Israeli ties are at a breaking point,” Sinan Ogan from the TURKSAM think-tank wrote in an online article.

Turkey, once Israel’s main regional ally, recalled its envoy from Tel Aviv, scrapped joint military drills and called an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council after the deadly assault on the flotilla of six ships, including three from Turkey.

Ties between NATO’s sole mainly Muslim member and the Jewish state had already been damaged amid vehement Turkish criticism of Israel’s devastating war on Gaza last year and Ankara’s improving ties with Iran.

Some Turkish analysts interpreted the assault as a deliberate warning from the Israeli government towards Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted administration.

Sedat Laciner, head of the USAK think-tank, also argued the Israeli raid on the flotilla, including its lead ship, the Turkish Mavi Marmara, was “a deliberate act of revenge against Turkey over its attitude on Gaza and Iran.”

Many of the dead were Turks, according to activists involved in the campaign to break the blockade of Gaza and deliver supplies to its impoverished people.

“Israel has a professional army. It could have intervened without causing casualties if it wanted. It preferred to act in this way,” Ogan said.

Foreign policy analyst Sedat Ergin said Erdogan’s government had prompted “a questioning of Israel’s security paradigm” with its vocal criticism of the war on Gaza and improving ties with Iran and Syria.

“Israel has come to perceive Turkey as a threat I don’t see how relations can be put back on track,” he said on NTV television.

Erdogan has defended Iran’s nuclear programme and on May 17, together with Brazil’s president, brokered a nuclear swap deal with Tehran to avert fresh UN sanctions on the Islamic republic.

In a memorable outburst, Erdogan stormed out of a debate at the World Economic Forum last year, accusing Israel of “barbarian” acts in Gaza and telling President Shimon Peres, sitting next to him, that “you know well how to kill people.”

Sentiment in Ankara was further inflamed in January when the Turkish ambassador was given a public dressing down by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon who made him sit on a low couch in a meeting called to protest a television series deemed to be offensive to the Jewish state.

The Israeli commentator Amos Harel, writing in the Tel Aviv-based Haaretz daily, said the envoy’s humiliation “now looks like small change”.

“Even before then, relations with Turkey had deteriorated over Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the generally anti-Israeli stance taken by Turkey’s moderately Islamist government. The new crisis is likely to lead to a total break in ties,” he wrote in the liberal daily.

Tens of thousands gathered to protest in Istanbul in the aftermath of the assault, with the crowds chanting “Damn Israel!” and “A tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, revenge, revenge!”.

Turkey has long been a favourite destination for Israeli tourists but Ogan predicted holidaymakers would now stay away.

“Israeli tourists will not come this year or maybe they will not be allowed into Turkey,” he said.

“Economic ties will plunge to a minimum level and defence industry tenders will very probably be cancelled.”

Israeli companies have been among the main recepients of lucrative tenders to equip the Turkish army.

Military ties, involving also a series of joint exercises, was the driving force behind the Turkish-Israeli alliance, which was sealed in 1996 with the signing of a military cooperation accord.

Israel trade unions might renew their explicit boycott of Turkey as a destination for their members, in view of Ankara’s role in organizing the aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip.

The boycott began more than a year ago, prompted by tension over the Israeli military operation in Gaza, but since the start of 2010 the number of Israelis vacationing in Turkey has risen by 18%. The aid flotilla and reports that Turkey’s Islamist ruling party is cooperating with Hamas in its organization have made the boycott newly relevant to Israeli worker organizations.

Yakov Alush, the CEO of Vaadim, which gathers data on union activity and membership benefits, said this weekend that the company will begin today to examine the possibility of officially renewing the boycott.

The First International Bank of Israel has already made its decision. “The flotilla to Gaza has put paid to the possibility of sending employees to Turkey in an organized manner,” FIBI union chairman Yona Goldschlager said. He noted that 600 FIBI executives are about to vacation together in Crete, despite the greater expense compared to Turkey. He said the union’s policy for mini-vacations for bank employees this summer is “anywhere but Turkey.”