Turkey attempts to rally diplomatic alliance against Israel
Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that the Jewish state's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla last year had been "grounds for war".
8:36PM BST 12 Sep 2011 TELEGRAPH
Mr Erdogan arrived in Cairo last night intent on burnishing his populist credentials after casting himself as a rival to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, as Israel's critic-in-chief in the Middle East.
In what appeared to be a deliberate piece of timing designed to maximise the impact of his visit, Mr Erdogan's office yesterday released a previously unpublished transcript of a redacted interview he gave to Al Jazeera's Arabic language service last week.
In it, Mr Erdogan claimed that Turkey would have been justified in going to war after Israeli commandos shot dead nine Turkish activists during the interception of an aid convoy seeking to breach Israel's blockade of Gaza in May last year.
"The attack that took place in international waters did not comply with any international law," he said. "In fact, it was grounds for war. However, befitting Turkey's greatness, we decided to act with patience."
Mr Erdogan's comments appeared to be designed to rile Israel at one of the most strained moments in relations with the Jewish state, which until recently was a close Turkish ally.
Incensed by Israel's refusal to apologise for the raid, Mr Erdogan announced the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ankara earlier this month. He also downgraded diplomatic relations, suspended military ties and announced that warships would in future escort any vessels flying the Turkish flag that attempted to reach Gaza.
Although alarmed by the rapid deterioration of its relationship with one its few friends in the region, Israel has dismissed Mr Erdogan's increasingly bellicose rhetoric as sabre-rattling.
But while few believe Turkey has any wish to engage Israel, with its vastly superior military strength in a war, Mr Erdogan does seem to be intent on attempting to isolate Israel in the Middle East at a time of heightened vulnerability for the Jewish state.
Persistently rebuffed in his attempts to seek European Union membership for Turkey, Mr Erdogan has instead sought to concentrate on projecting power in the Middle East by presenting himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause, traditionally the single most emotive issue among ordinary Arabs.
The Palestinian Authority is expected to submit a controversial application for statehood at the United Nations next week, in a move that will further raise tensions across the Middle East.
Mr Erdogan's visit to Egypt, once a part of the Ottoman Empire, is the first by a Turkish leader in 15 years and comes at a time of growing popular discontent against Israel on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere.
Over the weekend, rioters angered by Israel's inadvertent killing of at least three Egyptian border guards last month, ransacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Israel was forced to evacuate its ambassador and nearly all its diplomats from the country.
But Mr Erdogan's visit is reportedly being viewed with considerable mistrust among Egypt's transitional military leadership, which has taken charge of the country after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, the former president, in February.
Mr Erdogan had been expected last night to address crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the revolution against Mr Mubarak, but his speech was mysteriously cancelled.
In a further sign that Egypt would resist Mr Erdogan's anti-Israel advances, one of the ruling generals said a state of emergency would be expanded because of the storming of the embassy.
The announcement could further incense public opinion, already outraged after three protesters were reportedly shot dead in disturbances outside the embassy and elsewhere in Cairo over the weekend.