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TURKEY: Long Friendship with Israel in Peril

ISTANBUL, Feb 4 2009 (IPS) - For decades, isolated Israel could count on Turkey as its only Muslim friend, if not ally, in the tumultuous Middle East. After Israel’s assault on Gaza, that friendship is in doubt.

And Turkey, a bridge between East and West, was seen as a credible broker in mediating a settlement in the region. That, too, is now in doubt.

The ties between Turkey and Israel that had been simmering for a few weeks suddenly hit boiling point at the usually sedate World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland. Israeli President Shimon Peres and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan got into a public showdown over Gaza; Erdogan stormed out of a panel discussion with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

Peres defended Israeli strikes as a response to rocket attacks by Hamas. Erdogan denounced Israeli raids and the death and destruction among civilians, many women and children among them, and on UN compounds.

The fine print of the confrontation was that Erdogan, despite the reports in most media, did not storm out of the meeting because of Peres. He had said his bit to Peres in no uncertain terms (“Israel knows how to kill well”) and was elaborating when moderator David Ignatius of The Washington Post said the panel discussion was running over the allocated time, and persistently attempted to cut off Erdogan.

Erdogan collected his notes and stormed out, telling Ignatius: “You gave him 23 minutes and only 13 to me.”


In a reported telephone call to Erdogan after the incident, Peres praised longstanding Turkish-Israel ties, and expressed the hope they would continue unhindered. But for the time being, and for some time to come, gone are any major joint Israeli-Turkish projects in many fields, certainly the military one.

“There is a storm, but it will blow over,” Istanbul-based French author Jerome Bastion told IPS. “Turkey and Israel are too important to each other, and Turkey is too important for the Middle East.”

Some consider that view too optimistic. “There is damage and it will take time to repair,” Ilter Turan, political science professor and a former vice-president of the International Political Scientists Association told IPS.

Turkey is now seen as taking sides in the Israel-Palestine quagmire to a degree that its potential as an ‘honest broker’ is questioned. Until a few weeks before Israel’s Gaza onslaught, Turkey was playing the go-between in negotiations between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

“Turkey’s credibility as an objective mediator has been undermined,” says Turan. “Its close relationship with Hamas makes it difficult to have relations with others.”

Following his walkout, Erdogan has become a folk hero of the Arabs, particularly in Gaza, unlike other “conservative and cautions” leaders in the region, writes chief editorialist of the daily Sabah Mehmet Barlas.

The opposite, inevitably is the response among Jews. “Prime Minister Erdogan’s tantrum at Davos throws gasoline on the fire of surging anti- Semitism,” David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee was quoted as saying in Turkey’s English language Daily News. “There has been a worrying surge of anti-Semitism in Turkey in recent weeks.”

Through the assault, the Turkish public sided squarely with Palestinians in Gaza, denouncing Israel at mass demonstrations and collecting funds. There is little in the protests that is anti-Semitic, but media picked on a placard at a restaurant saying ‘No entry to Jews’.

Normally, as a sign of sympathy with Jews, Turks point out that their forbearers, the Ottomans, accepted Jews to the empire after they were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Turkey, which now has a thriving Jewish community of some 20,000, recognised Israel long before Egypt did. Turkey and Israel once considered building a pipeline or a tanker route to ship fresh water from Turkey to Israel, but the project was found too costly.

The Davos spat has suddenly called into question such assumed ties. Through his outburst, Erdogan has certainly raised his stature at home. He was welcomed home with signs of ‘World Leader’ and ‘Conqueror of Davos’.

The flap may have a little to do with personality, and not just politics. Erdogan is known to be a firebrand – with impulsive mood swings from charming to damning. As he said after Davos, he does not belong to the ‘Mon Cher (‘My Dear’) crowd of affable and cautious diplomats trained in the best tradition of the French diplomatic lexicon. He comes “from the seeds of politics,” telling it as it is.

In a sharp break from the past, Palestinian flags were hoisted at the boisterous post-midnight welcome for Erdogan at Istanbul airport, and Turkish flags fluttered in Gaza at a gratitude demonstration. It will be a long time before Turkish and Israeli flags adorn one another’s countries.

The “Mon Cher” diplomatic world has its work cut out.

 
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