Pro-Palestinian Turks at Inonu Stadium (Source: AP Photo)
By James M. Dorsey
Istanbul's Fiyapi Inonu Stadium this week painted the sorry state of Turkish-Israeli relations as it hosted a politically laden Europa League soccer match between the city's Besiktas JK and Maccabi Tel Aviv.
A battalion of riot police deployed in the. 32,0000-seat stadium to protect a handful of lone Israeli Maccabi fans who had travelled to Turkey's commercial capital for the match despite the government's expulsion earlier this month of the Israeli ambassador and the suspension of all military cooperation.
Several hundred protesters gathered on Istanbul's central Taksim Square as the match got underway to protest Israeli policies towards the Palestinian, US support for Israel and Israel's refusal to apologize for last year's interception by the Israeli navy of a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship in which 8 Turkish nationals and a Turkish-American were killed.
The protesters chanted: "Murder Israel, get out of Turkey" and "Destruction of Israel, Freedom for Palestine." A banner at the venue vowed that "Imperialism will be defeated; the Islamic revolt will win the day."
Besiktas' 5:1 victory over Maccabi similarly seemed an accurate reflection of the state of affairs as Turkey's star rises because of its support for the anti-government protests sweeping the region and the regime's that have emerged out of the ashes of this year's demise of autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as well as its firm stance towards Israel.
By the same token, Israel is increasingly on the defensive with its ties to Turkey, its closest ally in the Muslim world at an all-time low, last weekend's storming of its embassy in Cairo by militant Egyptian soccer fans and pro-democracy activists, expected anti-Israel manifestations in Jordan, alongside Egypt the only Arab country with a peace treaty with Israel and next week's expected United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood.
The fact that the match was played in Istanbul amid the mounting political tension rather than in a neutral was a further tell-tale sign of changing realities. Israel had sought to persuade European soccer body UEFA to move the game but that was thwarted by Turkey which said was guaranteeing the safety of Israeli players and fans.
Speaking in Tunis on the day of the Istanbul match, Turkish Prime MInister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed that the days in which Israel had a free reign in the eastern Mediterranean were over. Mr. Erdogan said he was deploying Turkish warships in the region so that Israel "would no longer be able to do what it wants."
The role of the warships will extend beyond escorting future aid ships seeking to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza to disrupting Israeli and Cypriot drilling for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish foreign ministry warned Turkey's foreign ministry warned that it would sign a continental-shelf delimitation agreement with Turkish-backed Northern Cyprus if the Greeks Cypriots began developing off-shore natural gas fields on the basis of their maritime demarcation deal with Israel. In response, the Greek government said the Turkish threat could prove "dangerous" to the already tense eastern Mediterranean basin.