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Regional Powers Step Into the Middle East Pot

ANKARA, Jul 26 2010 (IPS) - The strained diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel since June have unveiled intensive jockeying between regional powers for influence in the Middle East peace process.

In the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey demanded an official apology by Israel, the opening of an international inquiry and damages to the victims and their families, under threat of sanctions. The Israel Defence Force (IDF) had on May 31 raided the Turkish flagship, which was attempting to break the naval blockade of the Palestinian Port of Gaza, causing the death of nine Turks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brushed aside the demands, and Turkey has already implemented some of its threats, closing its airspace to Israeli military aircraft, putting a halt joint military exercises, and recalling its ambassador from Jerusalem.

The rift between the two countries has brought to the front Turkey’s emerging strategy to become the regional power of the day, filling the vacuum left by Iraq’s collapse in 2003.

In many public speeches, as well as in his book Strategic Depth, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a former professor at Marmara University, Istanbul, and the International Islamic University of Malaysia, has propagated his vision for Turkey to become the main political player and catalyst in the Middle East, the Balkans and Central Asia.

The implementation plan of the strategy includes a “zero-problem with the neighbors” doctrine, formulated and already put in place by Davutoglu, a close and long-standing advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and to President Abdullah Gul. Relations with historical enemies Greece, Syria, and rival Iran have been restored to friendships.

Turkey’s focus, however, is, for now, the Middle East. Ankara has seized two opportunities in this respect: mediation between Israel and Syria in the peace process; and brokerage of a deal with Iran for swapping nuclear fuel in order to stave off Iran the fury of Washington and its western allies.

The agreement with Tehran, which was signed jointly with Brazil, was not to the liking of the U.S., which in June successfully pressed for severe sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council. Turkey and Brazil, both members of the Council, voted against the U.S.-proposed resolution.

This vote has prompted Washington’s insistence on Ankara to leave the Iranian affair to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, also known as P5+1.

U.S. President Obama, at a brief encounter at the end of June in Toronto, urged Erdogan to find ways to reconcile with Israel. Despite a meeting in early July in Brussels between Davutoglu and an envoy by Netanyahu, no progress was made.

The Turkish foreign minister’s roll-out of his plans for leadership of the Muslim world has, as a result, been put on hold. The privileged relationship with Israel, which Turkey had enjoyed since the 1996 military cooperation agreement between the two countries, gave Ankara the weight it sought in order to influence the balance of power between the Hebrew state and the Muslim states in the region, including Iran. Turkey was respected by the Arab capitals and Tehran, and was the only friend Israel had in the region.

The chemistry between Ankara and Jerusalem had, however, deteriorated since the 22-day Operation Cast Lead, launched at the end of December 2008 by IDF against Hamas-controlled Gaza, which ended Turkey’s role as mediator in the peace process. Erdogan did not forgive Netanyahu for not informing him of the impending attack.

Mutual frustration between the allies escalated when Erdogan walked off on Israeli President Shimon Peres at a televised debate during the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The PM’s wife, Emine Erdogan, discussing last Saturday the incident in an interview with a Palestinian newspaper, said that “Peres was uttering a chain of lies in front of the world” and someone had to stop him.

After the recent break in diplomatic relations between Ankara and Jerusalem, neither Iran nor Syria seem to see much value in Turkey’s political efforts in the Middle East. Ankara’s ability to have the ear of Netanyahu and Obama has declined. According to political analysts in the region, the rulers of the other Muslim states are becoming annoyed by Erdogan’s recent initiatives, which have increased his and Turkey’s popularity in the Arab street.Egypt and Saudi Arabia are keen to be seen as the chief defenders of the Palestinian cause.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, speaking Jul. 5 at a press conference in Madrid, signaled that he would like to resume negotiations with Israel, but implied that it would be harder for Turkey to play a role, in view of its quarrel with the Jewish state. International observers speculate that Damascus will opt for a Western mediator.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has indicated that he plans to appoint a former French ambassador who served in Damascus to coordinate talks between Israel and Syria. This seems to be the solution preferred by Netanyahu, who dispatched last week the chief of the general staff, Gen. Gaby Ashkenazy to France and Italy to discuss military cooperation, a role fulfilled until May by Turkey.

Last week, however, Al-Assad, in a volte-face, praised Turkey as the mediator Syria could trust. This was followed Monday by an impromptu visit by Davutoglu to Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshal in an effort to reconcile the organisation with the rival Palestinian Authority (PA).

Meanwhile, in this race for regional influence, another contender has surfaced. Muammar Al-Gaddafi, Libyan ruler and Chairman of the 53-nation African Union, has indicated that he does not want to leave to Turkey the leadership of the Muslims, according to Arab commentators. The failed attempt to break the Gaza blockade by a ship commissioned by one of his sons could be the beginning of a series of initiatives to coerce Israel into concessions to Hamas and to conquer the Palestinians’ hearts and minds.

With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hesitating to begin direct negotiations with Netanyahu, Turkey may now have a better chance to come back to the scene as a viable mediator in the peace process. Ankara’s rhetoric on the Gaza blockade remains, however, an obstacle to Jerusalem’s assent.

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