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Turkish PM Criticizes Israel Over Gaza, Seeks Mediator Role

  • Charles Recknagel

Is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeking to redefine Turkey's alliance with Israel?

Is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeking to redefine Turkey's alliance with Israel?

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not minced his words in criticizing Israel over Gaza.

Speaking on January 4, the Turkish leader called Israel's air and ground offensive "unacceptable." He also said that "Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents."

His remarks on Turkish television echoed statements he made last week during a tour of four Middle Eastern countries -- Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria -- as he called for a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

But Erdogan has not only expressed his displeasure with words. He pointedly did not visit Israel as part of his Mideast swing. And he has called off Ankara's sponsorship of talks between Israel and Syria, which initially began in secrecy in May.

The question now is whether Erdogan is redefining the Israeli-Turkish relationship in light of the Gaza crisis or merely responding to the strong pro-Palestinian sentiment within the ranks of his own Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Lale Sariibrahimoglu, political and defense analyst for the Turkish newspaper "Today's Zaman," says Erdogan is under popular pressure to scale back ties with Israel. But she says so far he has shown no signs he will do so.

"Street demonstrations are huge and quite widespread in the country, urging decision makers to cancel defense procurement agreements with Israel -- and the last one was signed two days before the Israeli air strikes [began]," Sariibrahimoglu says.

"So far, Turkish officials, when asked on the second day of the Israeli air strikes in Gaza last week, ruled out establishing any linkage between Israel's Gaza strikes and the military agreements with Israel," she adds.

Widening Regional Role

Turkey has been Israel's main regional ally since 1996, when they concluded a military agreement. Their ties include joint training exercises, overflight privileges for the Israeli air force, and Israeli arms sales to the Turkish military.

Sariibrahimoglu says that during 2007, the most recently published figures available, the value of Israeli arms sales to Turkey reached $2 billion.

Still, Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003, often seems to view Israel and the Palestinian issue differently than does Turkey's secular General Staff.

Erdogan reached out to Hamas in 2006 by welcoming a high-ranking Hamas delegation to Istanbul despite anger from Washington and Jerusalem. His government is one the few in the region that recognizes the Hamas administration in Gaza -- an administration not recognized by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas himself.

Now, Erdogan appears to be using contacts with Hamas, and its backers Iran and Syria, and contacts with Israel and the West, to assume a leading role in trying to broker a cease-fire.

Since the Israeli offensive began, Erdogan has talked by phone to the Hamas political leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyah, and been in touch with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

All this is in line with a policy that has become a hallmark of Erdogan's government in recent years. That is, for Ankara to take a greatly heightened regional profile after decades of seeing its interests almost exclusively in Europe.

Because this foreign policy gives new attention to neighboring Arab states whose land was once part of the Ottoman Empire, some political commentators in Turkey speak of it as "neo-Ottomanism." The policy has also seen stepped-up diplomatic initiatives toward Greece and in the Caucasus.

The architect of the policy is widely considered to be Ahmet Davutoglu, an Erdogan adviser and author of the book "Strategic Depth." Davutoglu met with Hamas leader Khalid Mish'al on the sidelines of Erdogan's recent visit to Damascus.

No End To Alliance

Sariibrahimoglu says Erdogan's government appears to be trying now to position Turkey as a country all sides in the Middle East conflict will view as an honest broker. She says that helps explain why, even as Ankara talks to Hamas, there are no signs Turkey will reduce ties to Israel.

"Turkey's bottom-line policy is that if you are not talking to your enemies or adversaries, how are you going to create a dialogue with them?" Sariibrahimoglu says. "So, in this sense, despite the fact that Turkey reacted sharply with Israel, it doesn't seem likely to cut its ties with this country just for the sake of [appearing] to be an honest broker. This wouldn't help Turkey to be viewed as an honest broker."

In Israel, officials have expressed reservations about Erdogan's comments on the Gaza crisis. The daily "Jerusalem Post" quoted one as saying privately that they are "emotional" and another as saying they are intended to mollify Turkish public opinion.

But Israel may has reasons to welcome Turkey's efforts to be a broker. There is little prospect Israel can solve the Gaza crisis solely by military means, short of permanently re-occupying the Gaza Strip, something Israel says it will not do.

Meanwhile, efforts by other states to mediate, have made little progress. Israel has rejected a French call for a 48-hour truce because it contains no guarantees from Hamas. And Egypt, which often plays the broker role, has disqualified itself in this crisis by its own bad relations with Hamas, as Cairo strongly backs Palestinian President Abbas instead.

What might a Turkish-brokered solution look like? Some signs came from Erdogan's meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo last week.

At a press conference afterward, Egypt's foreign minister said, "We expect the Palestinian side to say that if a cease-fire is announced, we'll stop firing rockets."

The key demand on Israel is likely to be open its border with northern Gaza to commerce, workers, and travelers.

Israel has sought to isolate Hamas since the militant group took power in interfactional fighting in Gaza in 2007. Hamas, which denies Israel's right to exist, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006.