Turkey's tailspin after the Palmer Report


Protestors burn an Israeli flag as they chant anti-Israel slogans during a demonstration in front of the Israeli consulate on May 15, 2011 in Istanbul.


Bulent Kilic

ISTANBUL, Turkey — It's tense times ahead in the Eastern Mediterranean, thanks to the continuing fallout from Israel's deadly raid last year on a Turkish aid ship.

The raid, which occurred in May 2010, claimed the lives of nine passengers aboard a ship heading toward Gaza in defiance of Israel's naval blockade.

Israel-Turkey relations deteriorated significantly in the wake of the incident, with Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently intensifying the dispute with the announcement that Turkey will begin patrolling the maritime space between the two countries to ensure safe passage for aid ships.

"From now on, we will not let these ships be attacked by Israel, as happened with the Freedom Flotilla," Erdogan said on Thursday.

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His words echoed those of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who earlier last week announced a series of measures — including freedom of navigation in the Eastern Mediterranean — to be taken against Israel on the heels of the release of the much-anticipated Palmer Report.

The report, issued by a United Nations panel created to investigate the raid, concluded that the Gaza blockade is a legitimate security measure for Israel and, while condemning the attack as "excessive," said that the Turkish organizers were partially responsible for the bloodshed that took place on board the Mavi Marmara.

Turkey was confident that the U.N. panel, which it had pushed hard to have convened, would take its side — partially since the U.N. Human Rights Council had condemned the attacks shortly after they occurred in 2010.

But the report, which came out last week and took a more divided view, has sent Ankara scrambling for new diplomatic tools.

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"Plan B," as Ankara's measures against Israel have now been dubbed, includes a melange of tactics aside from assuring freedom of navigational movement in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey has further downgraded relations with Israel, suspended all military agreements, pledged to take the Gaza blockade to the International Court of Justice and support cases filed on behalf of Mavi Marmara victims in courts around the world.

Turkish officials have also said that Ankara will throw its weight behind recognition of Palestinian statehood at the U.N. General Assembly scheduled to meet on Sept. 20.

But the implications of Turkey patrolling the Eastern Mediterranean, where Israel has been searching for natural resources, are dangerous. Onlookers fear what has until now been a cold confrontation, could turn into outright conflict.

"Diplomacy has its limits and we are now in the dangerous red area of diplomacy," said Gokhan Bacik, an international relations professor at Zirve University. Moreover, at the end of diplomatic solutions lay "conflict, high level tension, crisis and finally war," he said.

Although Plan B was just announced last week, analysts say it has been in the making since the Mavi Marmara incident. "Plan B is just putting a name on some of what was already in place," said Bulent Kenes, the editor-in-chief of Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman.

After the raid took place in 2010, Ankara withdrew its ambassador to Israel, suspended joint military exercises and barred Israeli military aircraft from Turkish airspace.

Turkey has been asking Israel to apologize for the raid, pay reparations to those killed and lift the embargo on Gaza. Israel has said that it acted in self-defense.

But unless Israel fulfills Turkey's conditions, "it is not possible to expect the Turkish-Israeli relations to be restored or normalized," said Erdogan, who is set to embark on a tour on Monday to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Although much of Turkey's new clout in the region derives from the fact that it was seen as an actor that could speak to all sides, its recent trouble with Israel has been diminishing that position.

However, amid the Arab Spring and heightened anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt, the power dynamics of the region are shifting in Turkey's favor.

"The only option for Israel if it loses Egypt is to apologize. Otherwise they will be all alone in the region," said Bacik.

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The deterioration of relations between Turkey and Israel is a new low point for allies who once carried out joint military training exercises and were top military trading partners.

But even before the Mavi Marmara raid, relations were souring. In 2008, Israel's Gaza offensive took Ankara by surprise, when it was in the middle of brokering peace negotiations between Israel and Syria. In 2009 Erdogan told Israeli President Shimon Peres, "you know how to kill" at the Davos World Economic Forum.

The fallout from the Mavi Marmara has erased any evidence of the once-strong alliance and made a quick rapprochement seem unlikely, according to analysts, especially given the two countries' respective leaderships.

"I do not believe that the Justice and Development Party in Turkey and the Netanyahu-led coalition government in Israel can find a way to restore the relationship between the two countries," said Kenes.

Mending ties might prove even more difficult if Ankara is serious about throwing its full support behind legal cases charging high-ranking Israeli officials of crimes against humanity and war crimes in relation to the Mavi Marmara raid.

Since the Mavi Marmara raid, such criminal complaints have been filed in England, Spain, Belgium and Indonesia, whose citizens were among those on board. But according to Buhari Cetinkaya, a Turkish lawyer for some of the victims of the raid, Ankara had been reluctant to back any cases until it saw the outcome of the Palmer Report.

"It's good to hear that the administration will be backing these court cases now. It should have been done from the start," Cetinkaya said.

The complaint, which has been filed to the Istanbul Prosecutor’s office, names high-ranking Israeli officials like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

It is unlikely that legal action against the leaders will amount to much, but it will likely make for a difficult normalization process.