The bomb attack in Istanbul on the morning of March 19 was the fifth similar act of terror targeting two of Turkey's biggest -- Istanbul and Ankara -- since October.
The suicide bomber, a 24-year-old with links to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), detonated his explosives on Istiklal Avenue, one of Istanbul's busiest streets and a popular tourist attraction. Three Israeli tourists (two of them also carrying U.S. passports) and one Iranian were killed. Dozens of wounded people were rushed to nearby hospitals. The death toll since October was now at nearly 200, including 14 tourists.
Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue, in the aftermath of the March 19 suicide bombing. (Image source: Sky News video screenshot)
At first this author thought that his initial instinct to expect something "out of line" because the victims were now Israeli citizens was wrong. The official, diplomatic way Turkey and Israel were handling the tragedy looked impressively civilized. Even before the bomb attack, there were unusually nice Turkish gestures. A few days before the Istanbul bombing, a senior Turkish official, Ahmet Aydin, deputy speaker of parliament (from the ruling AKP party), had praised historical ties between the peoples of Turkey and Jewish citizens of the country. He described their relationship as "a unity of destiny," and underlined "Jewish citizens' contribution in founding the Republic of Turkey." Such language is too rare in Turkey, and even more rare when it comes from an official from the ruling [Islamist] Justice and Development Party (AKP).
After the suicide bombing in Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- surprisingly -- did what any other president of a country hosting a terrorist attack would do. He conveyed his messages of condolences to Turkey's Jewish community and religious leaders. In a similar gesture, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "expressing his condolences to the people of Israel on behalf of the Turkish people."
In return, Israel hailed the "sincere and very helpful cooperation it has received from Turkish officials in the immediate aftermath of the deadly Istanbul attack in which its three citizens have been killed and envisaged this good as a way to help talks for the normalization of relations."
Dore Gold, Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, arrived in Istanbul to meet with Istanbul's governor, Vasip Sahin, for talks on the details of the bombing; and then with his Turkish counterpart, Feridun Sinirlioglu, possibly for talks on the normalization of diplomatic ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.
So far, so good. It is not unusual in diplomacy to use tragic events as a pretext to bolster problematic ties and as an excuse to further refine any effort for reconciliation. The Turkish niceties were the "make-up," partly driven by pragmatism and designed to hide the anti-Semitic sentiments the AKP has worked hard to cultivate in the Turkish society. Before the bodies of Israeli victims were carried to their homeland, the Turkish make-up showed signs of falling apart and the ugly reality emerged.
Irem Aktas, head of the women's and media division of the AKP branch in Istanbul's Eyup district, commented on social media that: "Let the Israeli citizens be worse, I wish they all died." When she wrote that in her Twitter account, at least 11 Israeli citizens injured by the bomb were being treated at Turkish hospitals.
Aktas quickly deleted her comments and shut down her social media accounts. A party official said that disciplinary proceedings against Aktas had been initiated. But the Turkish Islamist reflex found a face-saving formula for the "heroine." Aktas would resign, instead of being expelled from the party.
Also unsurprisingly, Aktas in her Facebook account describes herself as "a fan of Erdogan" and "an Ottoman lover."
Her mistake was probably to express publicly what millions of Turks only thought, but did not say, in the face of a suicide bomb attack.
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.