Turkey Finds It Is Sidelined as Broker in Mideast

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

ISTANBUL -- After prayers on Friday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped outside a mosque on the banks of the Bosporus here and dismissed a suggestion that Turkey should talk directly with a onetime ally, Israel, to attempt to resolve the crisis unfolding in Gaza.

"We do not have any connections in terms of dialogue with Israel," he said.

But by Tuesday, Turkey seemed to indicate that while its strident anti-Israel posture has been popular among Arabs, it has been at its own expense, undermining its ability to play the role of regional power broker by leaving it with little leverage to intercede in the Gaza conflict. As he headed to Gaza with an Arab League delegation on Tuesday, Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, suggested to reporters that back-channel discussions had been opened with Israeli authorities.

"Turkey's new foreign policy has but one premise, to become a regional actor," said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "To this end, Ankara needs to have persuasive power on all countries of the region. In the past decade, Ankara has won that power with the Arabs but lost it with the Israelis."

Turkey's stature in the Middle East has soared in recent years as it became a vocal defender of Palestinian rights and an outspoken critic of Israel and pursued a foreign policy whose intent was to become a decisive power in regional affairs. But as Gaza and Israel were once again shooting at each other, Turkey found that it had to take a back seat to Egypt on the stage of high diplomacy. The heavy lifting unfolded in Cairo under the inexperienced hand of Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi, whose political roots lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist movement that helped found Hamas.

"Egypt can talk with both Hamas and Israel," said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of international politics at Istanbul's Sabanci University. "Turkey, therefore, is pretty much left with a position to support what Egypt foresees, but nothing more."

Turkey finds itself largely shut out of the central and defining Arab-Israeli conflict. On Monday, Mr. Erdogan helped seal that reality speaking at an Islamic conference in Istanbul when he called Israel a "terrorist state." At a parliamentary meeting on Tuesday that was broadcast on Turkish television, he said Israel was guilty of "ethnic cleansing." Moreover, Mr. Erdogan's stance continues to play well with his domestic constituency of conservative Muslims, making a reconciliation with Israel even more difficult, even if he were interested in winning back Turkey's seat at the negotiation table, said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East security expert at Georgetown University.

In the past, Turkey could be relied upon by the West and the United States as an effective mediator in the Middle East peace process, but the relations between Turkey and Israel fractured after the last Gaza war in 2008.

A year later, Mr. Erdogan walked off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, after exchanging bitter words with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres. The relationship shattered in 2010 after Israeli commandos raided an aid ship bound from Turkey to Gaza, which is under an economic blockade, resulting in the deaths of several Turkish citizens.

But as the Gaza crisis has laid bare the effect that Turkey's harsh stance on Israel is having on Turkey's regional ambitions, some Turks are calling for a reappraisal of the country's policy toward Israel and urging a reopening of dialogue, if for no other reason than to help empower Turkey.

"Which Turkey is more valuable in the eyes of regional and global actors, including Hamas, in achieving an immediate cease-fire with the Israeli operation on Gaza in its sixth day?" Kadri Gursel, a columnist for the Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet, wrote on Monday. "Turkey that has maintained enough distance to talk to Israel, or a Turkey that has no communication with Israel? Which of the two would be a more influential actor in its region? Of course, the first one. Turkey that can talk to Israel. Turkey, however, cannot talk to Israel."

Bulent Arinc, a senior government official and member of Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, suggested publicly last week that Turkey should resume dialogue with Israel as part of an effort to end the fighting in Gaza.

Mr. Erdogan dismissed the suggestion when asked by a reporter after Friday Prayer what effect the Gaza war would have on relations between Turkey and Israel.

"Which relations are you asking about?" he said.

From the beginning of the outbreak of violence in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, Mr. Erdogan was notably slow to speak out publicly. As the violence erupted last week, Mr. Erdogan was touring a factory that makes tanks and was initially silent on the unfolding crisis.

"While most of the region's leaders rushed to the nearest microphone to condemn Israel, the normally loquacious prime minister was atypically mute," wrote Aaron Stein, a researcher at the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, a research center based in Istanbul, in an online column. "While Erdogan was out touring the production facility for Turkey's first homemade tank, Egyptian President Morsi had already put his stamp on world reaction by kicking out the Israeli ambassador and dispatching his prime minister to visit Gaza."

Last weekend, Mr. Erdogan visited Cairo on a previously planned trip to secure economic cooperation agreements and showcase a growing alliance between the two countries that some predict could become a regional anchor and help shape the Middle East for generations to come. With its relative prosperity and its melding of democratic and Islamic values, Turkey was seen as the leading partner. But Mr. Erdogan's visit, overshadowed as it was by the Gaza crisis and Egypt's role in trying to solve it, displayed the limits to Turkish influence in the region.

Mr. Cagaptay, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Gaza crisis represented the litmus test of the notion of a "rising Turkey."

"Can Ankara now find a sympathetic ear with Arabs and Israelis alike?" he asked. The answer, analysts said, was for now, at least, no.

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here