It's amazing what a little controversy can do to the ratings of a mediocre television show: it drives them up through the roof. And that's exactly what happened to what used to be a "barely-watched" Turkish drama series called Ayrilik: a love story that develops between the lead characters during Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" on the Gaza Strip. The show, which airs on Turkey's state-owned TRT television, depicts Israeli soldiers murdering innocent Palestinian civilians. One particular segment showed images of Israeli soldiers shooting a smiling young girl in the chest, steamrolling a tank through a crowded street and lining up a firing squad to shoot at a group of Palestinians.
Ayrilik's producer owes some gratitude and thanks to Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman who has recently complained to the Turkish government over its airing when he said on Wednesday that, "broadcasting this series is incitement of the most severe kind, and it is done under government sponsorship." Since then the show has been making headlines in both Turkish and global media, drawing more audience to TRT television and curiosity-seekers to YouTube to watch clips of the show.
This is not the first time a Turkish drama has caused a buzz in the Middle East. Last year a cheesy series called Noor (light) became a phenomenon when it captured an audience of 85 million viewers when it aired its last episode. The show's popularity increased when some Muslim Imams accused it of violating Islamic values and the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa against watching it.
The saga between Israel and Turkey is not about a television drama, although in reality it has unfolded like one ever since the rise of the Justice and Development Party in 2002. Turkey's ties with Israel have been deteriorating rapidly since Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip last winter, which left hundreds of Palestinian civilians dead. However, tensions between the two allies hit a peak after Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stormed out of a conference during the Davos summit this year where he confronted Israel's President Shimon Peres over the Palestinian civilian casualties during its offensive on Gaza. Wagging his finger at Peres, an emotional Erdogan accused him of "murdering children on beaches" -- an outburst that made Erdogan a hero in the Arab world.
Adding more fuel to the fire, Turkey has recently banned Israel from an international air exercise in protest against its actions in Gaza, then announced that it will hold military exercises with its nemesis Syria. The announcement came after officials from Ankara and Damascus held the first meeting of a new co-operation council in the Syrian city of Aleppo aimed at ending years of tension between the two neighbors.
For decades Turkey has been looking to the West. It has been eager to please the United States, Europe, and NATO. It has been obsessed with membership to the EU, though snubbed thus far. What's more interesting is the fact that the Turkish military, which usually determines the country's strategic path, even when it goes against the will of the people, is keeping mum about the political decision which could signal a major shift in Turkey's future alliances.
For decades, Turkey has been Israel's closest ally in the Muslim world. It was the second Muslim majority country (after Iran) to recognize the State of Israel. The Islamic Revolution ended Iran's ties with Israel, and although Turkey's ties with Israel will not be severed, they have been permanently damaged.
Article first published in the Huffington Post.