ISTANBUL // After an election race primarily fought on economic and domestic issues, Ankara's troubled relations with Israel have become a hot-button topic in Turkey's poll, due on June 12. Rival party leaders have increasingly tried to win support by portraying their respective foes as pro-Israel.
Once a close partner of Ankara, Israel has become extremely unpopular in Turkey, in large part because Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish activists on a flotilla travelling to the Gaza Strip a year ago.
The stinging campaign comments come amid reports that the Turkish government is trying keep ties with Israel from fraying further in the advent of a new aid flotilla set to sail for Gaza from Turkey this month.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, used a campaign speech in Istanbul on Sunday to slam opponents for failing to stand up to what he sees as Israeli bullying. Mr Erdogan is a religiously conservative Muslim known for his outspoken criticism of Israel.
In his speech, Mr Erdogan said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, had admitted that he would not have allowed last year's Gaza flotilla to sail.
"People with courage and honour do not try to curry favour with Israel, they criticise piracy in the Mediterranean," said Mr Erdogan in a reference to the Israeli attack on the flotilla in 2010 that took place in international waters.
Speaking in the central Anatolian city of Konya on Saturday, Mr Erdogan reminded his audience that it was an Ankara government formed by the secularist Republican People's Party, the party now led by Mr Kilicdaroglu, that recognised Israel as a state in 1949.
Mr Kilicdaroglu shot back, claiming that Mr Erdogan, who is expected to win the elections, had cosied up to Israel. He alleged that the prime minister proposed that an Israeli company receive a Turkish government contract to clear mines along the border with Syria. Later he called Mr Erdogan the "co-leader of the Greater Middle East Project", a purported scheme by the US to reshape the region that is often cited by Turkish secularists as evidence that Mr Erdogan is backed by Washington. The plan supposedly props up Turkey as a model state for the concept of moderate Islam.
In a meeting with reporters in the southern province of Mersin yesterday, Mr Kilicdaroglu accessed Mr Erdogan of secretly sending one of his ministers to Israel to secure a deal for a Turkish businessman close to the prime minister. He gave no further details.
The public exchange shows the depth of the rift between Turkey and Israel that now extends from the halls of government to the bazaar. No party in Turkey has dared campaign on a pro-Israel platform.
Mr Erdogan's government insists that Israel apologise for last year's flotilla attack and pay compensation to the families of the victims. Israel has rejected those demands.
Although Ankara has said it will not stop the second flotilla from sailing at the end of this month, the government has also stressed the need to prevent a repeat of last year's fatal disaster.
The Hurriyet newspaper reported yesterday that Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, had proposed fresh tactics to avoid further tensions with Israel. Mr Davutoglu told reporters that Israel should recognise a Palestinian unity government and lift the Gaza blockade.
But he also added some public advice for the organisers of new flotilla, now just weeks away. He said they should hold off on the symbolic and controversial voyage until Israel's stance on the new Palestinian government, and the consequences of its recent opening of the Rafah border crossing, become clear.