Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday night was greeted by a cheering crowd of thousands in Cairo, where he arrived to sign strategic and commercial agreements with the country's interim government and to launch a regional trip to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya that is being called his "Arab Spring tour."
The three-nation tour to boost Turkey's regional influence comes amid its ongoing diplomatic crisis with Israel, which began following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008 and reached an all-time low after the publication more than a week ago of a United Nations-authored report on the Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010, which left nine Turkish nationals dead.
Turkey has continued to demand Israel apologize for the raid or face diplomatic repercussions and legal action in international courts. Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador, downgraded diplomatic relations and cut off defense trade ties with Israel. It has also drafted a five-step plan against Israel that it said would be implemented in the coming months.
According to reports, a crowd of two to three thousand enthusiastic Egyptians, including members of the radical Muslim Brotherhood, welcomed the Turkish leader after he landed at the airport in Cairo, where he was met by Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. Thousands of Egyptians chanted anti-Israel slogans while welcoming Erdogan in Cairo airport.
The crowd carried signs reading "Erdogan! Erdogan! A real Muslim and not a coward," and "Turkey and Egypt, a single fist. The blockade [of Gaza] will be broken," according to reports. Erdogan, who addressed the crowd in Arabic, told the crowd, "Turkey-Egypt hand in hand, greetings to Egypt’s youth, to the Egyptian people,” while raising joined hands with Sharaf.
The visit to Egypt marks Erdogan's first since the February ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. It also comes just days after an angry mob descended on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, tearing down the security barrier around the building, tossing documents off the balcony and nearly attacking six Israeli guards trapped inside.
Erdogan is scheduled to meet with religious, military and civilian leaders during his two-day stay in Egypt, before moving on to Tunisia and Libya to meet with transitional leaders there. Erdogan is also expected to address the 22-member Arab League on Tuesday. He is also expected to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Meanwhile, Turkish media on Tuesday reported that the country's Military Electronics Industry has produced a new identification friend or foe (IFF) system for Turkish fighter jets, warships and submarines that, contrary to the older, U.S.-made software, does not automatically identify Israeli planes and ships as friendly.
According to Today's Zaman newspaper, the new friend or foe system has already been installed in Turkish F-16s and is expected to be installed in all military planes, navy warships and submarines.
The report comes following comments from Erdogan this week that set the stage for a possible naval confrontation with Israel in the eastern Mediterranean. Unconfirmed Turkish media reports this week claimed that three Turkish naval frigates are expected to be dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean to police “freedom of navigation.”
According to the reports, Turkish warships will be given authority to clash with Israeli gunboats in international waters in the event Israel intercepts aid ships.
Prior to his departure from Ankara, Erdogan continued to denounce Israel, once again calling it a "spoiled child" and saying that Turkish pride is more important than friendly relations with Israel.
Erdogan said that Israel hasn't grasped the reality of changes that have taken place in the Arab world, and refuses to listen to voices of reason in the West.
Despite Erdogan's office earlier this week saying that his recent remarks that Turkish warships would escort and defend the next Gaza-bound flotilla were misquoted, Erdogan told an Egyptian newspaper that Turkish naval ships are prepared to defend Ankara's interests in the Mediterranean and are gearing up for the worst-case scenario.
"Currently there are no winds of war on the horizon, although Israel acts as if the Mediterranean belongs to it," Erdogan told Egyptian newspaper Al-Shorouk. "Turkish naval ships are prepared to sail to the Mediterranean to protect Turkey's interests, and we are preparing for all possible scenarios, including the worst possibilities," Erdogan said.
Also in the interview, Erdogan discussed the publication of the Palmer report, the U.N. investigation into last year's Gaza flotilla incident, which deemed Israel's naval blockade of the Palestinian coastal territory legal, but said Israeli commandos who boarded the Mavi Marmara used excessive force. The report also criticized Turkey for its role in the flotilla.
The Turkish leader said Ankara does not recognize the report because it recognizes what he called the Israeli occupation and contradicts the U.N. charter.
"Israel is behaving like a spoiled child," Erdogan said. "It does not respect international law and acts disrespectfully and irresponsibly. We do not recognize the legality of this report and we intend to take this issue to the International Criminal Court at The Hague."
Erdogan told Al-Jazeera this month that last year's Gaza flotilla incident was a "cause for war" but said Turkey acted with "patience." "In the wake of this, we decided that Turkish naval ships would protect any boat sailing to Gaza from Israeli bullying in the Mediterranean," Erdogan told the broadcaster.
Meanwhile, despite speculation he might visit Gaza, Erdogan said before leaving Turkey that a planned trip to Gaza was off for the time being. "I will not visit Gaza," he said. "But I would like to say that I'm longing to visit Gaza as soon as possible," Turkey's state-run news agency Anadolu Ajansi reported him saying.
Erdogan is visiting Egypt along with a delegation of Turkish politicians and business people in a bid to strengthen strategic ties between the two countries. Erdogan is expected to visit Tahrir Square, the hub of Egypt's revolution where hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered earlier this year to overthrow Mubarak and demand civil rights and democracy.
Eli Yishai is invited to Turkey
Against the backdrop of the strained diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey, two Turkish representatives of Adnan Oktar, an Istabul-based theologian and philosopher believed to be a close associate of Erdogan, arrived in Jerusalem on Monday. The two were accompanied by Rabbi Avraham Haim, the leader of the Jewish community in Turkey.
The Turkish delegation met with Israeli politicians, including Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Army Radio reported, adding that they requested to renew the diplomatic dialogue between the two former allies through religious channels. They invited Yishai to visit Turkey, and according to Army Radio, he is not ruling out such a trip.
However, Yishai said that he supports the Israeli soldiers who took part in the raid on the Mavi Marmara and opposed apologizing to the Turks. He reportedly asked the delegation whether he would be requested to apologize in the event of a visit to Ankara.
"The Interior Minister attaches great importance to Israel's relationship with Turkey, while maintaining Israeli principles," a statement from his office said, according to Army Radio. "Should Yishai travel to Turkey, it will be coordinated in advance with the prime minister and other relevant parties."
Charter flights to Turkey canceled
The ongoing diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey has also led to the cancellation of charter flights between Israel and Antalya, which are to be grounded starting Thursday.
"We decided to stop all charter flights from Ben-Gurion airport to Antalya because there's no demand," Shai Pardo, CEO of KTA International, which represents several Turkish charter airlines, said, according to Israeli media. "The last charter flight will take off this Thursday. It's not an anti-Israel decision, there are simply are no takers for the flights."
The charter flights have been canceled indefinitely, although the company said it would renew the flights should demand rise. Vacationers who booked such flights in Israel will be refunded in full.
Meanwhile, Turkish Airlines is continuing its regular flights between Ben-Gurion airport and Istanbul, which serves passengers travelling from Israel connecting to other destinations through Turkey.
Since 2008, when Israeli tourism to Turkey peaked, there has been a steady decline. According to data from the Turkish tourism office in Israel, 560,000 Israelis visited Turkey in 2008. That number was reduced almost by half in 2009, when 300,000 Israelis traveled there. In 2010, 100,000 Israelis visited Turkey, while only 36,000 visited in the first half of 2011. However, this past July saw 12,000 Israelis travel to Turkey, twice the number that visited there in July of last year.