Gaza Highlights Turkey's Unique Role In Middle East

Crowd, some with anti-Israel signs, listens to Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan i i

hide captionPeople wave signs, including one that reads "Any relationship with Israel is a crime," as they listen to Erdogan speak during the opening ceremony of a subway station in Istanbul on Jan. 30.

Gul Tuysuz for NPR
Crowd, some with anti-Israel signs, listens to Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan

People wave signs, including one that reads "Any relationship with Israel is a crime," as they listen to Erdogan speak during the opening ceremony of a subway station in Istanbul on Jan. 30.

Gul Tuysuz for NPR

Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip severely strained ties with its one ally in the Middle East: Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been harshly critical of the Israeli action. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Erdogan blasted Israel's president, Shimon Peres, and then stalked off the stage.

Erdogan got a hero's welcome at home, but his emotional outburst has raised questions about Turkey's new role as regional mediator.

Bitterness Lingers

Turkish sympathy for the Palestinians of Gaza runs deep. Turks dig deep every day to help them — with bake-sale fundraisers and donations to charities.

Emotions have cooled since last month's cease-fire in Gaza, but there is a lingering bitterness against Israel — and Turkey's alliance with the Jewish state, says Samiya Fidon, a volunteer at an Istanbul charity shop.

"At the end of the day, we are a Muslim country, Erdogan is a Muslim ... We cannot have an alliance with people who are against Islam," she says.

Turkey's Unique Role

But the alliance with Israel is one of the Turkish government's strongest political assets. A predominantly Muslim country with a secular system, Turkey has forged a unique role because of the Israel alliance and Turkey's ties with Arab countries.

Turkey sent soldiers to Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force after Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah. Later, Erdogan brought Israel and Syria together for indirect peace talks — the first in years. Turkey also initiated a dialogue with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. This difficult balancing act works as long as all the regional players, including Israel, see Turkey as an honest broker, says Faruk Logoglu, a former ambassador to Washington.

"We have lost some ground. It could have been managed better by the Turkish leaders, the Turkish prime minister, because what's important is not the temporary points that you gain; it's the final score," Logoglu says.

Erdogan's Domestic Politic Play

The score in domestic politics is all in Ergodan's favor.

At a rally in Istanbul late last week, thousands turned out to see the prime minister open a new subway station.

With a boost to his prestige ahead of a local election next month, Erdogan's comments appear designed to mend fences abroad. When the crowd shouted anti-Israel slogans, Erdogan challenged them, saying Turkey's relations with Israel will remain strong.

Then Erdogan made clear his earlier attacks on Israel were not directed at the Israeli people, but at the actions of the military.

At the height of the Gaza crisis, there was a rise in anti-Semitic sentiments in Turkey. Some Turks blame Erdogan for not speaking out sooner, says Soli Ozel, a professor and newspaper columnist.

"Finally, the authorities have come to their senses and recognize the kind of damage this outburst of anti-Semitism did to the county's image, and now there's an attempt at damage control," he says.

Turkey's Ties With Regional Players

Damage control may take longer with Israelis, shocked by the shouting match in Davos and what they believe was Erdogan's support for Hamas during the Gaza crisis. Turkey has been more critical of Hamas lately, but continues to say it should be included in peace talks with Israel — a view that earned Turkey praise in the Arab world.

Erdogan's drive to build stronger ties with the Arab states can be seen in an Ankara hospital, where Turkey has sponsored free treatments for patients from Gaza.

On an official level at least, Israel and Turkey have worked hard to mend the rift. Israel's president called Erdogan directly after the confrontation in Davos. Israel's ambassador in Turkey says relations would soon be back to business as usual. Officials from the Turkish Foreign Ministry are heading to Washington for what they call "calming" talks with U.S. officials and American Jewish groups.

Permanent Damage?

But commentators in Turkey continue to ask whether there is long-term damage to Turkey's regional role.

Hugh Pope, based in Istanbul with the International Crisis Group, says he doesn't think Turkey did anything "to pay a price for."

"They were overemotional; emotions will blow over. Turkey did nothing to affect the basic fact that Turkey still has billions of dollars of arms deals with Israel. It has a military training arrangement with Israel. All these things have not been affected one whit," he says

And, says Pope, Turkey's role is still important — as a NATO member with ties to all the parties in the region.

Correction March 3, 2009

Our translation of the Turkish at the beginning of the story was incorrect. In the excerpt we included, the boy is yelling, "Help for Gaza."

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