Turkey's prime minister warned Israel on Thursday that his country would not sit by and let the Jewish state do as it pleased in the Mediterranean, the latest salvo in a major diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
Recep Erdogan spoke during a visit to Tunisia, where he met with the prime minister and expressed his support for Palestinian efforts to gain statehood. The Turkish leader was traveling from Cairo, where he received a warm welcome from foreign ministers at the Arab League.
Relations between former allies Israel and Turkey soured following an Israeli commando raid in June 2010 on a Turkish boat containing pro-Palestinian activists, resulting in the death of nine Turkish citizens, including one U.S. dual national.
Angered by Israel's refusal to apologize over the deaths, Turkey suspended military ties with Israel, expelled top Israeli diplomats and vowed to send the Turkish navy to escort Gaza-bound aid ships in the future.
"Israel cannot do as it pleases in the Mediterranean," said Erdogan, adding that Turkey was committed to preserving the freedom of navigation in international waters. "We are determined to do so, because we all live in the Mediterranean."
Erdogan has dramatically stepped up Turkey's influence in the Middle East as the region is swept by revolts and uprisings. At the same time, many Arabs have cheered his increasingly confrontational stance against Israel.
The prime minister dismissed any plans to normalize relations with Israel until it apologized, compensated the victims and lifted the blockade of Gaza.
Israel has defended its raid on the flotilla, saying its troops were attacked by passengers as they boarded and were defending themselves. Last week, Israel expressed regret for the loss of lives aboard the flotilla and said it was time for the two countries to restore their former close ties.
A U.N. report into the raid, released earlier this month, said Israel's naval blockade was legitimate but accused Israel of using "excessive and unreasonable" force in the raid.
Asked about Erdogan's latest comments, an Israeli official said his country "has taken a deliberate decision not to respond to these sorts of statements."
"We want to contain the dispute and not exacerbate it and we are trying to act responsibly," the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of Israel-Turkey relations.
Erdogan's visit also drew a great deal of interest in Tunisia, because of the Turkish experiment with Islam and democracy.
Despite the staunchly secular nature of the modern Turkish state, Erdogan comes from the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In Tunisia, which will be holding its first free elections for a constitutional body in just over a month, one of the most powerful groups is the Islamist Ennahda Party.
Tunisia's more secular politicians have expressed worry over the rise of the Islamists at the ballot box, but Erdogan emphasized that there was no contradiction between Islam and democracy.
"In Turkey, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, and it did not pose any problem. You can do the same here," said Erdogan, who still described Turkey as democratic and secular.
The prime minister's delegation included other ministers and businessmen, and he pledged to boost commercial ties and trade between the two countries.