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Anti-Israeli Series Continues on Turkey's State-Owned Television

12:25 PM, Oct 22, 2009 • By ULF GARTZKE
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This Tuesday, Turkish state-owned TRT channel aired the second episode of "Ayrilik" ("Farewell"), a highly controversial prime-time TV series set against the backdrop of "Operation Cast Lead" in the Gaza strip that shows Israeli soldiers shooting a smiling young girl in the chest, killing babies, steamrolling tanks through crowded streets, lining up a firing squad to execute a group of Palestinians, and so forth. You get the picture.

After its first airing last week, the show quickly sparked fresh diplomatic tensions between Israel and Turkey, with Israeli foreign minister Lieberman protesting that Ayrilik "constitutes the most serious level of [anti-Israeli] incitement, and it is being done with [Turkish] state sponsorship". His foreign ministry spokesman described the show as "hate-inciting television drama, which depicted distorted facts." Ankara's foreign minister Davutoglu quickly hit back, pointing out that Turkey is not "based on censorship" and that the state has no right to comment on the quality of broadcasts or the opinions expressed in them.

The Ayrilik scandal comes on the heels of Turkey's decision earlier this month to block the Israeli air force from joining the annual multi-national "Anatolian Eagle" military exercise, which prompted the United States and Italy to cancel their participation as well, in a clear show of solidarity with Israel. Turkish leaders cited Israel's Gaza offensive as the reason for blocking's Israel's participation in the exercises. Prime Minister Erdogan told al-Arabia television that Ankara's decision was due to the "Turkish people's wishes." "I had to lend an ear to the voice of my people. They don't want Israel in these exercises." Hamas, Syria, and Iran all strongly applauded Turkey's decision to boot the IDF.

Israeli observers, for their part, are quite concerned about this particular incident, primarily because it demonstrates that even the traditionally pro-Western Turkish military has now decided to support Prime Minister Erdogan and his Islamist AKP party in their anti-Israel course. Also, officials from Israel and Turkey have already made it clear that the on-going deterioration in relations between the two countries could derail bilateral defense trade and military industrial cooperation.

How fitting, then, that Turkey just last week signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Syria that covers both closer civil and defense ties, including the lifting of all visa requirements. Turkish defense minister Goenuel indicated that various contact groups would be established between Turkey and Syria later this month to find concrete ways to improve bilateral defense ties.

Last year, Turkey played an important behind-the-scenes role in facilitating indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, notably over the Golan Heights. Ankara is very eager to resume that mediating role, not least because it enhances the country's standing in Washington. However, in response to the latest deterioration in bilateral ties with Turkey, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already rejected any future mediating role for Ankara in talks with Syria, questioning Turkey's ability and willingness to serve as an "honest broker".