Erdoğan’s misinterpreted remarks on escorting aid vessels touch raw nerves

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

A warning by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Israel reiterating his country’s firmness on ensuring freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean sent shockwaves throughout the region after it was interpreted as a prelude to a naval confrontation with its former ally.
But officials in Ankara made clear on Friday that Erdoğan’s remarks during an interview with Al Jazeera were quoted out of context. Some of his quotes were compiled later both by Al Jazeera and Reuters in a way that implied these quotes had followed each other, the same officials said. “Turkish warships, in the first place, are authorized to protect our ships that carry humanitarian aid to Gaza,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying by Reuters in the interview, broadcast by Al Jazeera with an Arabic translation.

“From now on, we will not let these ships be attacked by Israel, as what happened with the Freedom Flotilla,” Erdoğan was also quoted as saying by Reuters.

In the Turkish version of the text of the interview provided by the Anatolia news agency, however, Erdoğan, in response to a question on ensuring the freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean, says: “At the moment, no doubt, Turkish warships are first of all liable to protect their own ships. This is the first step. And there is humanitarian aid which we will extend. Our humanitarian assistance will no longer be attacked as happened in the case of the Mavi Marmara.”

A senior government official speaking to Today’s Zaman on Friday said Erdoğan’s remarks cannot be interpreted to mean that Turkey has been preparing to send humanitarian aid ships to the region that will be escorted by Turkish warships. “We have put forth a principle by saying that we will ensure the freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean and that this field is not an Israeli playground.

As long as Israel does not interfere in the freedom of navigation, we do not plan on sending any warships to escort humanitarian aid ships,” the official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Today’s Zaman. “The misquoted remarks suggest that we have been readying to provide a warship to escort each humanitarian aid ship. This is not the case. However, Turkey will protect its citizens’ rights in the event of any interference in international waters,” the official added.

Turkey downgraded its relations with Israel following a raid by the latter on the Mavi Marmara, a ship that was part of an international aid flotilla attempting to breach an Israeli blockade of Gaza. Turkey said relations between the two countries would only return to normal if Israel offered a formal apology for the resultant killings and paid compensation to the victims’ families. Israel, however, refused, saying its soldiers had acted in self-defense. Months-long diplomatic efforts to mend relations failed to produce an agreement.

The Turkish government last Friday announced a set of sanctions against Israel, including the further downgrading of relations to second secretary level — effectively expelling senior-level Israeli diplomats — and measures it will take to ensure freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean after Israel made clear that it would not apologize for the May 31, 2010 raid.

In Jerusalem, Erdoğan’s compiled remarks found a response from Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who termed “Turkey’s announcement that Turkish warships would escort any future convoys to the Gaza Strip” “harsh and serious” but said Israel wanted to avoid a war of words with its former ally.

“The things Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan said are harsh and serious, but I don’t think it would be right to get into any verbal saber-rattling with him,” Deputy Prime Minister Meridor told Israeli Army Radio. “Our silence is the best response. I hope this phenomenon will pass.” Meanwhile, Israel’s hawkish foreign minister is planning a series of measures to retaliate against Turkey in the recent row over the apology, including military aid to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a news report said on Friday.

Other planned measures are cooperation with the Armenian lobby in the US in its efforts to win recognition for Armenian claims that 1.5 million Armenians were victims of a genocide campaign in the late Ottoman Empire during World War I and to issue a travel warning urging all Israeli military veterans to refrain from traveling to Turkey, according to a report in Israel’s Yedioth Ahranoth newspaper. The travel advisory will also urge Israelis to refrain from boarding connections in Turkey, the report said.

Yedioth Ahranoth said Lieberman had planned meetings with PKK leaders in Europe in order to find ways to cooperate with them “in every possible area.” In these meetings, the PKK leaders may ask Israel for military aid in the form of training and arms supplies, the report said. Lieberman is also planning active Israeli participation in efforts worldwide to report Turkey’s “violations of human rights” in the treatment of minorities in Turkey.

“We’ll exact a price from Erdoğan that will prove to him that messing with Israel doesn’t pay off. Turkey better treat us with respect and common decency,” Lieberman was quoted as saying. Whether Lieberman’s threats could ever be implemented remains questionable.


09 September 2011, Friday / TODAY’S ZAMAN, İSTANBUL