Turkey's decision to expel Israel's ambassador and downgrade its own mission in Israel to second-secretary level is a sign of the country's rising weight in the region. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is furious about Israel's refusal to apologise for killing eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American aboard the Mavi Marmara, the largest vessel in an aid flotilla attempting to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010. Israel has offered only compensation and an expression of regret for the deaths. A United Nations investigation headed by Sir Geoffrey Palmer concluded that Israeli troops had used “excessive and unreasonable” force and that the government had offered no adequate explanation for “forensic evidence showing that most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range.” Turkey has suspended all defence-related dealings with Israel — which include buying weapons — and says it will go to the International Criminal Court to challenge Palmer's most controversial conclusion, namely that Israel's blockade of Gaza does not violate international law. Mr. Erdogan has even said that Turkish naval vessels will henceforth be “seen more often” in the Eastern Mediterranean.
What makes the current tensions different from many others in West Asia is the fact that Turkey has the political and economic weight to damage Israel. Ankara, which recognised the Zionist state in 1949, waived its veto so that it could join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2010. Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), and a major regional ally of the U.S. This gives it some room for manoeuvre. The Erdogan government has suffered no sanctions for refusing to regard the elected Palestinian representative group Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Furthermore, Ankara can make life harder for ordinary Israelis by imposing tougher security searches on the thousands who, banned from several countries in the region, take their holidays in Turkey. Finally, Turkish influence in West Asia and North Africa could be decisive in the continuing U.N. negotiations on whether or not the issue of Palestinian statehood should be voted on at the world body. True to form, Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does not seem to have got the message, and even public criticism in Israel has had no effect on his intransigence over the Palmer report. His fellow-citizens will discover the consequences the hard way.