The fallout from Ankara’s continuing and widening estrangement from Israel has seen some unaccustomed diplomatic bedfellows cozying up together in recent weeks. Close military ties between the two states were ruptured when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered a ban on joint military exercises. He also insisted on searching for sources other than Israel for unmanned aircraft used in assaults on Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq.
The rift originated from Turkish protests against the Israeli attacks on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009 in which 1,400 Palestinians were killed. It reached a crescendo in May of this year when Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish-led aid flotilla heading for Gaza, killing nine Turks (including a dual United States-Turkish citizen) and seriously wounding around 50 others.
Bereft of its usual war games partners, the Turkish Air Force teamed up with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army last month for exercises at Konya in Central Anatolia. The pairing was bizarre in that it appears to be the first time that a member of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has engaged in military exercises with the Chinese. According to the United States Defense Department, any worries that Turkey might reveal military secrets were carefully avoided by their use of F4 Phantom warplanes instead of the much more modern F15. Since the F4 was first manufactured in 1958, this seems to have been a prudent course. Not that the Turks were likely to learn too much either. For a latter-day replay of an aerial Agincourt, the Chinese used Su-27 Flankers, which are of a slightly newer 1982 generation of fighters.
The exercises coincided with a visit to Turkey by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, at the head of a delegation seeking to triple two-way trade to $50 billion a year by 2015.
Meanwhile, Israel accepted the opportunity to partner for aerial combat practice with Turkey’s erstwhile nemesis, Greece. As the two air forces conducted a joint drill over southern Greece, politicians on the ground signed the first Greek-Israeli bilateral pact for 60 years. This is a turnaround for Athens, which has traditionally been noted for its Arab sympathies more than its leanings toward Tel Aviv. This may well have been why two of the ships in the eight-strong Gaza aid flotilla in May were crewed by Greeks and one, Eleftheri Mesogios, was even Greek-flagged. The ships were carrying humanitarian aid and trying to break the military blockade imposed on Gaza by the Israeli military.
Although all the flotilla deaths were on the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara, the Greeks on board the Sfendoni and the Eleftheri Mesogios were also given a rough welcome. According to a report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council and published at the end of September, passengers and crew on both vessels had taken a decision to offer only passive resistance to their Israeli boarders, for example standing with linked arms around the bridge. Despite this, says the report, many were beaten. One woman who refused to hand over her passport was punched in the stomach, a man had his leg broken and the captain of the Sfendoni was kicked in the back, punched in the face and burned with an electroshock weapon.
The report, labeled by Aaron Leshno Yaar, Israel’s permanent representative to the UN Mission in Geneva, as “superfluous… unnecessary and unproductive” before it was published, goes on to catalogue a range of ill-treatment received by flotilla members once on
Israeli soil. These incidents include handcuffing seriously injured patients to hospital beds, confinement for hours on end without access to toilet facilities, physical and verbal abuse as well as the confiscation of personal items, including money intended for distribution among the Palestinians. The report also claims that much of the money has not been returned — nor indeed have cameras, recording equipment and other personal belongings been given back. This would make Israeli civil and military security personnel common thieves as well as any other charges that could be brought against them.
Yet, none of this seemed to interfere in the development of the closest contacts Israeli and Greek politicians have had in six decades. Perhaps it depends on what kind of Greeks are bearing what kind of gifts, and to whom.
PETER GRIMSDITCH is Executive’s