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Will Turkey sever ties with Israel?

Once allies, relations after Israel's raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship are at an all-time low.

Turkey protest
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during a protest in Ankara on June 6, 2010. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL – After the Israeli attack on a Gaza-bound aid ship in May, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “nothing would ever be the same again.”

Six weeks later, his ominous prediction appears to be coming true. The rift between the once close allies has never been wider.

The entire region, as well as the United States, is now anxious to see how Israel will respond to a statement by Turkey’s foreign minister that the country would sever ties unless Israel issues a formal apology, or at least accepts an international investigation.

With no response from Israel so far, rumors swirled Thursday on the streets of Istanbul and elsewhere that Turkey might soon make good on its ultimatum.

Turkey — irate over the deaths of eight Turks and one Turkish-American — has reacted strongly to the flotilla incident. Since recalling its ambassador from Jerusalem shortly after the attack, Ankara has banned Israeli military planes from its airspace, halted military exercises between the two countries and ended a 20-year agreement to supply Israel with water.

Erdogan, already infamous for his fiery rhetoric, has been true to form, calling Israel’s actions “pirate-like” and “barbarous.”

“I am sure that Israelis are disturbed by a perception equating the Star of Zion to the Nazi swastika,” he said in a speech in Konya the week following the attack, taking even those sympathetic to the Turkish position by surprise.

For its part, Israel hasn’t taken Turkey’s anger lightly. Israeli defense advisors were quickly withdrawn from Turkey following the incident and the government has warned Israelis against visiting Turkey.

Convinced that Turkey provoked the incident and wanting to avoid an international investigation, Israeli officials said, Israel has refused to apologize for the deaths.

An Israeli military investigation, in fact, found this week that while there were failures in its planning, intelligence and coordination, the killings onboard the Gaza-bound flotilla were justified. A further investigation, led by a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice, is in the works but it seems unlikely that Israel — still reeling from the U.N.-led Goldstone report into human rights abuses that took place during the 2009 Gaza invasion — will agree to the full international investigation called for by Turkey.

“At the moment it’s hard to imagine a way out of this situation,” Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said. “It could take years for things to be civil between the two countries again.”

The current state of Turkish-Israeli relations is now a far cry from the mid-1990s when Turkey’s military turned to Israel for help in improving its forces — leading to more than $1 billion in known deals.