- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2009

Can Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan play the role of a viable interlocutor in the Middle East peace process after his verbal attacks against Israel during his visit to Washington last week?

Mr. Erdogan, whose country was once Israel’s only friend in the Middle East, lambasted the behavior of the Jewish state for its actions during the war against the Hamas-led resistance in Gaza last December.

The Turkish prime minister also sharply criticized Israel for possessing nuclear weapons while calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear program. (In a later interview with an Egyptian journalist, he warned of an “earthquake” reaction in Turkey if the nation’s airspace were used by Israel to launch an attack on Iran.)

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“This is a situation where we clearly have double standards,” Mr. Erdogan said, much to the consternation of Israeli diplomats and supporters in the audience. His statements even upset many Turks who see this shift in Kemalist policy as a dangerous step for Turkey.

Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the architect of modern Turkey, intended to distance the nation from its Ottoman past by aligning it more with Europe and away from the Middle East. Indeed, Turkey has been fighting an uphill battle with the European Union for the good part of 1 1/2 decades.

Turkey says it has met all the requirements put forward by the EU but Brussels keeps changing the rules. Mr. Erdogan compared the EU’s attitude toward Turkey to “changing the rules for the quarterback in a football game in the 36th minute.” Mr. Erdogan went on to say, “Turkey has been in limbo during the past 15 years.”

In that context, therefore, it should come as no surprise to anyone - least of all the Europeans who have opposed Turkey’s entry into the EU - to see Turkey begin to gradually realign its foreign policy in favor of the Arab and Muslim East. At least in that region, Turkey is regarded as a regional powerhouse and a force to be reckoned with, as opposed to the West, where many Turks are tired of being seen as the poor man trying to gain entry into an elite club.

The Turkish prime minister, however, said that there was “no change in the axis” of his country’s foreign policy. In two consecutive speeches earlier last week, Mr. Erdogan said his country would continue to be an intermediary and try to mediate between Palestinians and Israelis and between Syrians and Israelis.

Of course, after his diatribes against Israel Monday and Tuesday drew considerable criticism from Israel’s supporters (although the Israeli Embassy declined to comment) it is highly questionable whether the Turkish prime minister will be accepted by the Jewish state as an honest interlocutor in the Middle East peace process.

This change of attitude on Turkey’s part comes as no surprise to this reporter, who predicted in numerous columns over the years that the European Union could not continue to treat Turkey as it had and not expect Ankara at some point to turn away from Brussels and begin a rapprochement with countries of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Mr. Erdogan’s speech no doubt was designed to demonstrate to his followers back home his political independence from Washington. The Turkish prime minister’s speeches will win him many points both at home and in the Arab/Muslim world.

While the prime minister’s discourse on Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories was received with stupor by Israeli diplomats, Arab diplomats were more than pleased. “He said what Arab leaders should be saying but don’t dare say,” said an Arab diplomat who asked not to be identified. The diplomat told this reporter that the Turkish prime minister’s speech was “courageous.”

In another clear jab at Israel, Mr. Erdogan called for a “legitimate order” in the Middle East, saying that “forcing paranoia based on the fear of the other does not work. We will not be able to solve our problems through military interventions and sheer power.” Mr. Erdogan added that the solution should come through diplomacy.

The Turkish prime minister said that Iran producing nuclear weapons “is not just a threat for the region, but for the entire globe.” But, Mr. Erdogan added, “if a country possesses nuclear weapons, it cannot ask others to give them up. … “Everyone should look in the mirror,” he said, referring to Israel’s policy of refusing to discuss the issue. Indeed, while it is no secret that Israel has long possessed a nuclear arsenal, the country’s leadership has never allowed inspections by international observers from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

Claude Salhani is the editor of the Middle East Times and author of “While the Arab World Slept: The Impact of the Bush Years on the Middle East” (Xlibris, 2009).

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