- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2009

ISTANBUL

Israel’s Gaza offensive may have benefits for Turkey, bolstering its diplomatic profile in what some commentators call “neo-Ottomanism” and a Turkish newspaper hailed as a “golden age” for Turkish diplomacy.

On New Year’s Eve, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a tour of the region. He visited Syria, Jordan and Egypt before concluding his trip Saturday in Saudi Arabia.

The four-nation tour included key Arab actors with a stake in the Gaza crisis as well as a side meeting between a trusted Erdogan aide and exiled Hamas spiritual leader Khaled Meshal in Damascus.

Mr. Erdogan has cultivated ties with Hamas since 2006 when a high-ranking Hamas delegation’s visit to Istanbul angered Turkey’s allies in Washington and Tel Aviv.

Since the Israeli offensive in Gaza began Dec. 27, Mr. Erdogan has spoken on the phone with Hamas’ political leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, and has kept in touch with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

While the crisis has underlined the wide range of Turkey’s contacts, critics say, it may be driven more by domestic opinion infuriated by the mounting death toll in Gaza.

“The trip is a gesture directed more for internal consumption with his domestic constituency and has little chance of success,” said Cengiz Candar, a prominent political commentator who is credited with coining the term “neo-Ottomanism.”

The term refers to Turkish aspirations for influence in the Arab countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey’s unique contacts with all the major players in the region, as well as its membership in NATO, have positioned it to mediate the area’s endemic conflicts.

Turkey has benefited, in particular, from regional disillusionment with Cairo over Egypt’s refusal to open its border with Gaza to allow an exodus of Gazans who want to flee the fighting.

Turkey has greatly expanded its diplomacy in the Middle East under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), an organization with Islamist roots.

This marks a sea change from the decades that followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire early last century, when the new secular republic shunned ties with regional powers and resolutely faced West.

Government opponents still hold up Iran as a nightmare scenario of what Turkey might become if it sheds its secular constitution.

Still, Mr. Ahmadinejad was welcomed this summer on an official visit and was allowed to defy protocol by not paying respects at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founder. Mr. Ataturk founded a militant secular state in which expressions of religion such as women wearing head scarves are sharply restricted in public life.

Turkey was one of the first nations to recognize Israel after the Jewish state declared its independence in 1948.

Last year, Turkey brokered indirect talks between Israel and Syria.

Today, Turkey’s diplomatic efforts include a suggestion that it could mediate between the United States and Iran.

The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet has hailed the Erdogan government for presiding over what it called a “golden age” for Turkish diplomacy.

Ahmet Davutoglu, an academic and an Erdogan confidant, is the architect of a policy embracing Turkey’s cultural and Muslim background to make the country the indispensable power in the region.

In his book “Strategic Depth,” Mr. Davutoglu argues that Turkey’s position at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe and the Caucasus, its former leading role in the Islamic world and its current pro-Western orientation can transform it into the region’s pivotal diplomatic power.

The doctrine has driven improved relations with former foes, including Armenia and Greece, and with former Ottoman dominions such as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

“They’re flexing their muscles a bit because they have some muscles to flex, and people in the region will sit up and listen to what the Turks have to say,” said Norman Stone, a professor of international relations at Bilkent University and the director of the Russian-Turkish Center. “They’re seriously involved in what’s going on to their east and their south.”

Mr. Erdogan has scored points in Arab popular opinion by condemning Israeli actions in Gaza as “a crime against humanity.” He also broke ranks with the generally pro-Israel Turkish General Staff to express his sympathy for the Palestinians.

Mr. Erdogan called off his country’s sponsorship of Syrian-Israeli talks after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Turkey on Dec. 22 to discuss the negotiations but omitted mention of his plan to attack Gaza.

The perceived insult was compounded by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Christmas Eve visit to Cairo, where she reportedly briefed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the imminent campaign.

Egyptian cooperation with Israel in shutting the border with Gaza is seen here as a settling of accounts with Hamas by an Egyptian government angered at Hamas’ coup against the Palestinian Authority in 2007 and its refusal to extend an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire with Israel.

Cairo’s refusal to open the border is compounding a humanitarian disaster and depressing Egyptian popularity in the Arab world to levels unseen since President Anwar Sadat broke ranks to become the first Arab leader to sign a peace deal with Israel, some analysts say.

That has given Turkey a chance to profit at Egypt’s expense.

At the same time that it is reaching out to Hamas, Turkey has maintained a military alliance with Israel that involves joint training exercises, overflight privileges for the Israeli air force and lucrative arms sales to the Turkish military estimated at $1.8 billion annually.

The latest deal was a $165 million agreement on airborne imagery intelligence systems signed on the eve of the Gaza bombardment.

“Turkey has excellent military relations with Israel, and this is why Erdogan feels he can talk tough to the Israelis,” said Mr. Candar, the political commentator.

• Iason Athanasiadis reports on Turkey through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington.

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