- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009




Israel’s operation into Gaza has brought disunity in both Europe and the Arab world. Even in this electrified environment, however, each country has its reasons and differences as to how it relates and plays its role in this conflict. And every decision has consequences. For that matter, here is a look into how Turkey plays its role.

Turkey is reacting to the developments as an interested neighbor in the region with ambitions to lead in the Muslim Middle East. Under the leadership of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has developed relationships in the region, become a candidate for full European Union membership, and is a strategic partner to the United States. Also, Ankara and Washington agreed on a strategic vision document in July 2006. In part, the agreement stated that “Turkey and the United States pledge themselves to work together … supporting international efforts toward a permanent settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including … two-state solution.” At the time, I wrote the “shared vision document will be seen as part of an agreement between the United States and the AKP, which is likely to fuel the perception among Turks that Washington is backing the Islamists.” I also said “the debate in Turkey will focus on the document’s impact on domestic politics, not bilateral relationship.”

As skeptical as I am of the AKP’s vision, which leans toward making the country a more Islamic one, Turkey has much to offer to regional peace and stability. But for that to happen, its leadership must be able to keep a balanced approach toward both its Muslim allies and its U.S. and European ones.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party have lost an enormous opportunity over the last week. Mr. Erdogan has been hammering Israeli actions as a “crime against humanity,” and “disrespect to Turkey”; his fellow party members have called Israel “leading provocateur of global terror,” nearly shutting down the inter-parliamentary Israeli-Turkish friendship group in protest. They have almost completely ignored Hamas‘ daily rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians. They chose silence where Israel was blamed to wage a war on Muslims. In fact, Mr. Erdogan believes Allah will punish Israel.

Simply, Turkish leadership lost the balance in rhetoric and in action that Ankara has worked for many years to achieve. Mr. Erdogan met with the leaders of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - excluding Israel. His chief adviser, Ahmet Davudoglu, also met with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. The speakers of the Turkish and Iranian parliaments held at least three telephone conversations in one week. But Turkish leadership had no such conversations with Washington.

While Turkey has officially taken its U.N. Security Council non-permanent member seat, Mr. Erdogan said, “We can deliver Hamas’ demands and conditions for a ceasefire to the U.N. Security Council, because Hamas has lost its trust to the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. They, however, have full trust in Turkey.” The point is, Turkey’s lack of coordination with the U.S. and Israel brings it no leverage to broker any kind of agreement in the region. “There is no Turkish mediation in this regard,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu-al-Ghayt said on Egyptian TV Saturday. Nonetheless, Mr. Erdogan went to the Middle East with a two-step plan calling for an immediate cease-fire and unity among Palestinian leaders. It’s fair to say that Ankara’s efforts failed. Solutions are easy to discuss but difficult to accomplish in the Middle East - and Ankara should have taken that into account.

So how does Mr. Erdogan’s latest stand serve Turkey’s national interests? U.S. sources, who ask to remain anonymous, believe that Turkey will face enormous challenges in the near future.

First, there is an understanding that “its leaders are playing a dangerous game.” Turkey’s effort in trying to mediate a peace between Israel and Syria is a different issue. But Hamas is an existential matter for Israel. Today, Egypt is more worried about Hamas than Turkey. Turkey chose a side. Turks have presented the Armenian genocide issue as an existential matter for them, as well. Israel and the Jewish lobby have supported Turkey’s efforts to defeat the numerous Armenian genocide resolutions that have been brought up in Congress over the last 30 years.

But after this recent episode, they may not be so eager to support Turkey’s efforts opposing the next resolution. In addition, although some EU countries are sending conflicting messages about Israel’s actions, Hamas is still seen as a terrorist organization. It could mean trouble for a country aspiring to join the EU to be seen as an ally of a group the EU sees as terrorists.

As these conflicts go on and these issues evolve, it’s crucial for everyone to think about how Turkey’s identity is transforming. Fatih Altayli, executive editor of Haberturk, argues that Mr. Erdogan has adopted harsh rhetoric on this matter to please his base (mahalle). But Turks must ask how big that base is. Evidently, pictures are radicalizing people in Turkey. If that is the case, if this conflict turns ordinary Turks away from a Western orientation, the repercussions will be felt in Tel Aviv, Europe and Washington.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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