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Turkey must tone down the Gaza flotilla rhetoric

Gaza flotilla deaths notwithstanding, government leaders in Turkey are inflaming regional tensions and undermining their own goals with their response to the Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound ships.

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Even considering the shock and sorrow over the tragic deaths of eight Turks and a Turkish-American aboard the Gaza-bound flotilla of Turkish vessels, the rhetorical response from Turkish officials has been over the top.

Turkey’s government leaders have called the Israeli raid on the flotilla a “massacre,” likened it to 9/11, and branded it “state terrorism.” President Abdullah Gul said Israel committed “one of the biggest mistakes ever in its history” and said that relations between the two countries – once close allies – “will never be the same again.”

The response fails to take into account the confusion on board the main aid ship Marmara and violence from both sides. It overlooks advance diplomatic attempts by Israel to head off the blockade-running flotilla. It forgets the existential threat to Israel by Hamas, and Turkey’s own struggle with Kurdish terrorists. It makes light of the word “massacre,” which is the polite way in Turkey to describe the killing of Armenians at the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

The rhetoric matters less in diplomatic circles, where back channels and ceremony have a way of repairing things. It matters much more on the street, where it can fuel public opinion and stir mindless emotionalism. And the street in Turkey this week saw angry mourners shouting “death to Israel” while the head of the Turkish Muslim charity that organized the flotilla gloated over the martyrdom of the victims.

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