The Arab Spring uprisings and Palestine’s bid for statehood at the United Nations are reshaping the political dynamics of the Eastern Mediterranean region, but perhaps nothing is more important than the newly assertive role of Turkey and its split from Israel, reports Danny Schechter.
By Danny Schechter
Let me begin with shvitz, a Yiddish term I believe that refers to special baths. When the hotel I was staying at in Istanbul advertised that guests were welcome to enjoy the Turkish Bath in their basement, I took them up on it.
There were two other blondish guys in their birthday suits in the small room sweltering in the small room when I got there. They were drinking beer and conversing in a strange language I later identified as Swedish.
I was in town to speak at a session on Internet freedom at the 17th International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA 2011) at Sabanci Center. They were there, as I slowly learned, as engineers loaned out to the America’s Westinghouse Corporation to build some nuclear plants in Turkey.
Apparently, the plants were to have been built by the Tokyo Electric company, which experienced its own high-profile nuclear disaster this year at Fukushima, Japan, and was either fired or quit the job in Turkey. Because of fears about safety and ongoing risks, Japan is out; the American nuclear industry is in.
So now these shvitzing Swedes have a new job in a country they don’t know much about and also have, as they revealed to me, many prejudices and non-nuclear fears about Turkey.
We batted around the nuclear safety and storage issues raised anew by Fukushima, but they and their Turkish government patrons unlike the Germans are moving ahead into the cul de sac of nuclear power. The money is there as well as the arrogant certainty that nothing can go wrong.
The Turkish government now has some other hotter than hot issues to contend with, so the nuclear issue is on the back burner. The government can no longer be easily categorized as pro-American even if they are members of NATO and big consumers of U.S. imports.
The reason: the popular government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogen, which won 50 percent of the vote in a recent parliamentary election, about double the second largest party, has initiated its own independent foreign policy on behalf of this nation of 70 million.
Bolstered by a strong economy, in fact, one of the fastest growing in the world with an 8.8 percent growth rate, Turkey is spreading its influence throughout the world, including Arab countries that have always been suspicious about Turkey’s motives.
Erdogen visited Egypt, Tunisia and Libya last week and received a warm welcome for his economic help, for his political support for change, and as a champion of secular leadership in a Muslim country.
Beyond that, he is one of the most outspoken regional leaders criticizing Israel. According to the polls, his stance is popular in Turkey and the Arab world accordingly.
Turkey and Israel had been close friends and military allies until Israel launched the deadly Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, just as Erdogen was acting as a negotiating go-between for Israel and the Palestinians.
When the Israel government started blowing up Gaza, it also blew up those discussions and embarrassed the Turks and Erdogen.
When a humanitarian group in Turkey, the IHH, sent an a flotilla of aid ships to Gaza, Israeli special forces boarded the lead Turkish Ship, the Mavi Marmara and killed nine people, eight Turks and one Turkish-American.
Not surprisingly. Turkey went ballistic over this massacre in international waters of the Mediterranean Sea. When the Israeli government refused to apologize for the killings, Turkey sent the Israeli ambassador home and broke off military cooperation.
(What’s not widely known is that there are many Israelis living in Turkey and many others coming for travel and business. Some Turkish Jews moved to Israel but retained family ties and are frequent visitors.)
Turkey has also been playing a close advisory and political support role for the Palestinians in the attempt to win a new statehood status at the United Nations. Israel and the United States oppose that policy and a U.S. veto is likely after President Barack Obama speaks at the UN this week.
There are also simmering tensions between Turkey and Israel on two other fronts. There are strong rumors that Israel may support, or is supporting, the Kurdish PKK, a group Ankara sees as terrorist. If true, this could provoke a serious response from Turkey.
Also Israel is aligning with Greek Cypriots to explore for oil in the island of Cyprus which is still divided between Greeks and Turks. The Turkish prime minister has threatened to send warships to stop this, arguing than any oil found off Cyprus should belong to Turks and Greeks.
This tension may easily expand into open hostilities if cool heads don’t prevail. Israel says it will defend its interests.
And now, the Israeli Lobby in the United States is reaching into its one-note playbook and starting to brand Turkey as anti-Semitic on the familiar knee-jerk grounds that any opponent of Israel must, by definition, hate Jews.
Watch for more hateful denunciations in the name of fighting hate.
I have already received a propaganda e-mail appeal with the title: “BOYCOTT TURKEY.” It said:
“Anti-Semitism is prevalent in many parts of the world and is gaining momentum in Europe and Britain. Synonymous with this ancient form of bigotry is anti-Israelism.
“At this moment, Turkey, which until recent years had enjoyed a decent relationship with Israel, changed dramatically following the election of the Tayyip Erdogan government which is unquestionably aligning itself with Islamic groups who are far from being well disposed towards the Jews and Israel, and is currying favor with such charming people as Ahmadinejad of Iran.”
This charge is preposterous on its face. Iran and Turkey are not on the same page. Iran is an Islamic Republic, Turkey a secular democratic one. The former is largely Shia; Turkey is mostly Sunni. They also have major political differences.
The accusation against Turkey is more guilt by association, intended to demonize the Turkish government, which has long been aligned with Israel, for now being furious that its citizens were gunned down on the high seas.
Forget the facts, forget the differences. The pro-Israeli hardliners always need fresh enemies for fundraising purposes. So there they go again, asking: “So what should we as Jews do?”
“Should we sit back and proclaim that we cannot influence events and close our eyes to the menace of anti Jewish activity or do we react with our money and refuse to support the Turkish economy? I urge you to not purchase Turkish made goods.”
Now, we have the same people, who say they reject in principle the idea of critics of Israel boycotting Israel, launching a boycott against Turkey, insuring more vituperation and tension in the region.
You can expect parts of the U.S. news media to join in with more one-sided trash talk. Once the Israeli Lobby goes on the ideological warpath, you can be sure that their fabricated issues will get lots of play from their media assets.
One former Wall Street Journal editorial writer came here on a junket with neocon “Prince of Darkness” Richard Perle.
Turkey is a player in this part of the world and can no longer be sidelined or ignored.
News Dissector Danny Schechter writes the newsdissector.com blog. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org