There are two explanations for Erdogan’s behavior. First, there is the issue of honor, which plays such a prominent role in Islamic society. He views the Mavi Marmara incident in the context of honor politics. And he demands an apology from Israel in order to increase his honor and diminish Israel’s.
Most of Israel’s objections to Erdogan’s demand to date have centered around this issue. Foreign Minister Avogdor Lieberman and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon have cited this as the primary reason for refusing to apologize.
But while unpleasant, honor is probably not Erdogan’s main rationale for pursing his demand for an Israeli apology. Since he was reelected to serve a third term as prime minister last month Erdogan has been openly seeking to establish a neo-Ottoman Turkish hegemonic position in the Arab world.
To this end he has been actively interfering in the popular revolt against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. The IHH has been hosting Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey. Erdogan’s clear aim is to replace Iran as Syria’s overlord in a post-Assad Syria.
Erdogan has also been actively engaging Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood since the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak in February. Erdogan plans a high profile visit to Egypt in the near future. And he plans to end his visit to Egypt by crossing the Egyptian border with Gaza. There he will become the highest-level foreign leader to visit Gaza since the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood Hamas took over in 2007.
As far as Erdogan is concerned, if he gets the U.S. to force Israel to apologize, it will be a massive public relations coup in his bid to convince the Arabs to accept his leadership. After all, Israel would be apologizing for having had the temerity to oppose the aggression of IHH terrorists engaged in an act of war against Israel. An Israeli apology would serve as proof that his double game of remaining a NATO member and carrying out aggression against Israel is the winning formula. If Israel apologizes for defending itself against Turkish aggression, Erdogan will have succeeded where the Arabs have failed.
Obviously, on the merits, Israel has no reason to apologize. And Turkish promises not to file lawsuits and war crimes complaints against Israel will have no legal weight. The Turkish pledge will not bind the relatives of the dead. And an Israeli apology and compensation will provide them with a prima facie claim that Israel admits culpability.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and senior IDF officers reportedly argue in favor of an apology, claiming the strategic alliance with Turkey is so important that Israel must be willing to swallow its pride in order to rebuild it.
This argument has apparently won over Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor. It has also caused Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to temper his honor-based rejection of the Turkish demand.
The problem with this argument is that it fails to take address Erdogan’s second, and more strategically significant motivation of using Israeli humiliation to strengthen his image as a pan-Islamic leader.
That motivation gives lie to the notion that Erdogan has any interest in reinstating Turkey’s strategic alliance with Israel. The man who is cultivating Hamas in the PA, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, is not going to permit the Israeli Air Force to renew its training flights over Turkish airspace.
Erdogan is not going to share intelligence with Israel on Iran. He will not cooperate with Mossad agents along Turkey’s border with Iran or Syria.
Instead he will use his ability to humiliate Israel and curb its military operations to demonstrate to the Muslim Brotherhood that it should accept Turkey’s role as regional hegemon and operate under its wings.