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Grotesque theatre succeeded brilliantly

THIS may turn out to be a pivotal moment in the Middle East.

Not because of the loss of life, which was tragic, but alas not uncommon in the Middle East.

Not because of the public relations disaster for Israel.

The Jewish state was sucker-punched by demonstrators determined to provoke an ugly Israeli reaction and international PR disaster.

By beating Israeli sailors nearly to death as soon as they landed, the protesters made a violent reaction inevitable. You cannot attempt to kill armed soldiers without suffering casualties.

Nor is the real significance of this incident that there will be another global round of Israel-bashing. That happens all the time.

No, the real strategic significance of the violence off the northern coast of Israel lies in Turkey.

It is in Ankara and Istanbul, and on the vast Anatolian plains, that we may be witnessing a profound reshaping of the Middle East strategic order, and therefore the global strategic order.

It's too early to call it definitively, but the evidence is disturbing.

In the melee of the Gaza ships, real violence occurred on only one ship, the Marmara. It was a Turkish vessel and its activists came from the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH).

The IHH is a pro-Hamas Islamist terror group implicated in numerous al-Qa'ida operations.

They took clubs, steel bars, knives and perhaps guns on board. But their object was not to kill Israeli soldiers - though they would have been happy for that to happen. The aim was a kind of grotesque theatre, which is what all terrorism is really about, in this case to carry out enough violence to ensure a violent Israeli reaction.

It succeeded brilliantly.

For weeks before the flotilla set off, the Israelis were constantly nagging the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv to help them manage the situation.

We can do nothing, the Turkish government said, adding the matter was being carried out by non-government organisations.

The flotilla never had any interest in getting aid to Gaza. The Israelis offered to route the aid through the Israeli port of Ashdod. Or the flotilla could have landed in Egypt and sent the aid in by road.

No, the flotilla existed only to make political theatre and the IHH activists were determined to make deadly theatre, for the more deadly the performance is, the bigger the theatre becomes.

The Turkish government seized on the incident to damn Israel in every way, to accuse it of piracy and banditry and murder.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to office in 2002. The AKP was formed out of old Islamist parties but it trod warily in its early years in office. Previous Islamist governments had been turfed out by the Turkish military, which sees itself as the guardian of Kemal Ataturk's secular republic.

Over the years the AKP has neutered the military, silenced much of the independent media and slowly weakened secularism.

Recently it has hosted Hamas visits and its leaders make frequent visits themselves to Iran and Syria. Erdogan joined with Brazil in offering to reprocess Iran's nuclear fuel to avoid UN sanctions on Iran.

Turkey is a member of NATO and it had traditionally been Israel's only Muslim ally.

A decade ago, Turkey's agenda was liberalisation, European Union membership and close military co-operation with Israel. Now its agenda is hostility to the West, denunciation of Israel and creeping Islamisation.

The way its government has used this incident to polarise its people against Israel is skilful and speaks of deep planning.

The flotilla tragedy reaped all kinds of other benefits for global Islamists as well.

It knocked off course the planned meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama. Such meetings are critical counters to the international effort to delegitimise Israel.

And it made a new intifada much more likely within the occupied territories.

This was a bad day not only for Israel, but for the collective West.

Hamas and its friends are sanguine about the loss of a few lives in pursuit of strategic gains.

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