Last Monday, the Israeli Navy stopped a so-called “Freedom Flotilla” from breaking the Gaza blockade in a deadly encounter. Four days later, I found myself on a nearly empty flight out of Ben Gurion International Airport headed for Istanbul. When I booked the flight in January, I had no reason to expect a major change in Israeli-Turkish relations. Five months later, six decades of regional partnership were resting on thin ice.
Turkey has always been Israel’s best friend in the Middle East. In 1948, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize Israel’s independence. On Thursday, at the funeral for the activists killed aboard the Mavi Marmara, Turkish President Abdulluh Gul said the two countries relations had suffered irrevocable damage. The Christian Science Monitor reported:
“Turkey will never forgive this kind of attack in international waters. The entire world has risen up, and everyone knows how Israel has been exposed, once again, how they have committed a crime against humanity.”
Early last week in Jerusalem, anyone I spoke to whispered rumors of an extreme, immediate response to the Flotilla incident. A third intifada? A complete secession of relations with Turkey? Friends and strangers alike advised me to change my travel plans through Istanbul, as quickly as possible.
Israelis generally don’t care about visiting countries where they are unwelcome. Following peace with Egypt and Jordan, Israelis eagerly crossed boarders to tour their neighboring countries. Israelis continue to travel in packs to the Sinai Desert following a series of deadly terror attacks, which began in 2004.
Before the Israeli Navy boarded the Mavi Marmara last week, tourism to Turkey was going strong. According to Ynet, tourism to had gone up 18% so far in 2010, after a significant drop off following Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s criticism of Israel’s offensive Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in 2009.
Turkish Airlines flies between Istanbul and Tel Aviv 25 times a week. El Al and Turkish Atlasjet had planned to introduce competing flights in the days before the “Freedom Flotilla.”
This week hundreds of Israelis abandoned their travel plans to Turkey, leaving me with a whole row of seats to spread across between Tel Aviv and Istanbul. Turkish Tourism Minister Ertugrul Gunay ball-parked the number of Israeli cancellations between 10,000-20,000.
“Turkey is a close destination in the Middle East for Israeli citizens to visit and holiday safely. This will still be the case in the future. We have no problems with the Israeli people.”
While tourism is certainly not the primary concern in resolving this international spat, it does reflect the civilian mood. Flights are still running without their passengers. The Turkish Tourism Ministry still wants Israeli travel dollars (surprise, surprise). What will it take for Israelis to return to their beloved beach resorts along the Turkish Riviera?
According to Israeli daily Maariv, 62.7 percent of Israelis believed the Israeli government should have handled the Flotilla situation differently. So while many Israelis may not stand behind the government’s policy choices, they are afraid to resume pre-Flotilla behavior.
And maybe, just maybe, an apology from Netanyahu regarding the loss of life would help.