Events in Turkey indicate that much of the Turkish public increasingly believes that their Prime Minister blundered by unnecessarily provoking a crisis with Israel.
If crises often provide opportunities, however, the long-term results of the flotilla incident might be just the opportunity to restore Turkish-Israeli relations to where they were before Turkey's current Islamist government took power.
It now appears that the average Turk -- for lack of a better term - approximately 70% of the population who is not part of the political establishment, the academic establishment, or the media -- now understands that this crisis has hurt Turkey internationally and politically and that there was no reason for Turkey to provoke Israel.
How do we know this? Turks rarely confront others directly: doing so means shaming others, which can lead to disastrous consequences. They prefer to make opaque statements which do not directly question their opponents. It is often difficult, therefore, for non-Turks to realize what is actually taking place.
The following examples illustrate these points.
All over Turkey, people are asking the following questions:
Q: Where is this place called Gaza; who lives there?
A: The Palestinians – not Turks.
Q: Why are they trapped there?
A: Because Hamas is there, and will not work with the Palestinian Authority.
Q: Why should Turkey help them when Egypt – an Arab country - is also blockading Gaza, and none of the rich Arab petrodollar countries is helping the people in Gaza?
A: We are not a country as rich as the Arab petrodollar countries; they should help their own people. The Turkish government, our government, should use its money to help our poor, our laborers, and the people out in the eastern part of our country, nine out of ten of whom do not have enough money to put bread on their tables.
Q: Why then did our Prime Minister provoke this crisis?
A: This is an Arab affair. We are Turks. If the Arabs will not help themselves, and we do not have the basic necessities that we need, why should we worry about them? They do not help their own people, let alone other poor Muslims like ourselves. This is not our affair; we should not have been involved.
One elderly Turk summarized this attitude as follows: Why is there all this commotion about Gaza? There is very little difference between us and the Jews. We go to our mosques and they go to their mosques (i.e., Jewish synagogues). We eat Halal meat and they Jews eat their Halal meat (kosher meat). So, I do not understand why we are trying to protect these Palestinians. Why aren't the Arabs helping their follow Arabs as we Turks are helping each other?
Moreover, many of these people are beginning to understand the value of the Turkish-Israeli relationship in positive ways they did understand before. For example, Israel helped Turkey, both militarily and internationally, with political support in the United States. For example, Israel and American Jewry have been helping Turkey over the years in Turkey's lobbying efforts in Congress. Israel has also helped upgrade Turkish military equipment. Israel has also shared with Turkey intelligence information about the terrorist threats facing Turkey.
Last week, the Turkish newspaper, Hürriyet, published a series of graphic pictures showing the flotilla members beating Israeli soldiers, and holding others as potential captives. In Turkey, there was a big uproar as to why the newspaper published them. Was this an attempt to further fuel the crisis, or was IT an attempt to subtly shame the government for having supported the flotilla terrorists?
Erdoğan and the people around him saw the photographs as a way to show that Israel was getting what was due it as it had attacked a "humanitarian" effort.
A cardinal principle in Turkish culture, however, is that one does not hurt or oppress the weak or defenseless; the pictures clearly show the flotilla members doing just that.
Again, as Turkish culture is subtle and indirect, this was a quiet way of showing that the flotilla members were bad, immoral people, hurting people who were down.
By extension, this means that the people who supported the flotilla – the Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan, President Gül, and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu – are themselves part of these forces of evil and immorality. Note that the newspaper did not directly attack the government, but the message was clear to the people: Why did our government support oppression?
The Reaction of the Turkish Military
Early last week, there was an attack on a Turkish naval installation in the port of Iskenderun on Turkey's southern coast. Erdoğan blamed this attack on the PKK (a Kurdish terrorist organization), and insinuated that Israel was behind this attack. The military launched an investigation of the attack, and issued a statement on Friday, June 20, that there had been no foreign involvement whatever in that incident.
What happened here, and what does this tell us about the flotilla crisis and internal Turkish politics?
Until this announcement, the Turkish military had been notably silent about the flotilla incident. The reason for the silence was that they knew the government was looking for a scapegoat to blame for the negative fallout from the flotilla crisis -- and that the military would be the obvious group to blame.
The public, however, interpreted the military's silence as disapproval of the government's having created the crisis.
By issuing the statement that there had been no foreign involvement, the military showed it felt confident that the Turkish public was holding Erdoğan, Davutoğlu, and their cronies responsible for the flotilla blunder: The military was indirectly accusing the government of lying to the people about the facts.
The military reaction is just one more indication that the Turkish public feels that its governmental leaders are heading Turkey down a dangerous path. Further, given Turkish culture, it is also highly unlikely that the military would have issued such a statement if it thought that the government had the support of the people.
Turkey's Religious Leader Gülen's Opposition to the Flotilla.
Fethullah Gülen is one of the most powerful religious leaders in Turkey, even though he has lived in exile in the US since 1999, under indictment in Turkey for having tried to undermine the secular Turkish constitution. Gülen has many followers in all walks of life in Turkey, including the police; business leaders; intellectuals, Turkey's equivalent to the FBI; intelligence organizations, and members of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
After the crisis began, Gülen gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he criticized the Turkish government –- again indirectly -– for provoking this crisis with Israel. Gülen said that if Turkey wanted to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza, the Turkish government should have coordinated this with the Israeli authorities, because "one must not go against authority."
What does this mean? Although both Gülen and the current Turkish Islamist government agree on many Islamic subjects, they disagree on very basic issues:
President Gül, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, and to some extent Prime Minister Erdoğan, have views very similar to those of the Arab-Oriented Muslim Brotherhood; so it is therefore not surprising that many Arabs, as a result of the Flotilla crisis, are now looking toward Turkey as their leader. Strange as this may seem, they see Prime Minister Erdoğan's Flotilla Incident as standing up for the Arabs as no other Arab leader has done. (For more Arab reactions to the Flotilla Crisis, See, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/4383.htm).
Gülen, on the other hand, is Turkish and Turkic-Oriented. Gülen has huge amounts of funds at his disposal; he finances schools throughout the Turkic lands of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Europe and the U.S.. These schools teach a "Turkish/Turkic-oriented Islam," which has little concern for the Arab world. It is therefore obvious why so many ultra-nationalist Turks -- some of whom want a union of all Turks from Northwestern China to the Adriatic Sea -- support Gülen. These Turks have little interest in the Arabs; they see the Flotilla crisis as actually hurting the interests of the Turks.
The Flotilla incident is therefore causing havoc among the different forces within Turkey who wish to pull it in different directions -- some of which could be advantageous to the West and Israel.
From a Western point of view, the Turkish government has invented a crisis which could lead to the end of Turkish-Israeli cooperation in various fields. But in Turkish terms, it has also unleashed forces that, if handled properly, could possibly bring about a change in the forces that rule Turkey in a not-too-distant future. These forces could repair the damage induced by the Turkish government.
Only time will tell which side will win, but inside his country, Erdoğan now seems to be on the ropes.