Gaza Highlights Turkey's Unique Role In Middle East 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 recently lashed out at Israel, and his outburst raises questions about Turkey's role as regional mediator.
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Gaza Highlights Turkey's Unique Role In Middle East

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Gaza Highlights Turkey's Unique Role In Middle East

Gaza Highlights Turkey's Unique Role In Middle East

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Israel's military offensive in Gaza severely strained ties with its closest ally in the Middle East: Turkey. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan blasted Israel's President Shimon Peres for his country's actions, and then stalked offstage. Erdogan got a hero's welcome at home. Still, his outburst has raised questions about Turkey's new role as a regional mediator.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Istanbul.

DEBORAH AMOS: Sympathy for the Palestinians of Gaza runs deep in Turkey.

Unidentified Child: (Turkish spoken)

AMOS: Gaza is bleeding, Gaza is bleeding, yells this hawker. This is a fundraiser for Gaza in a poor Istanbul neighborhood, a bake sale and cut-rate clothing donated by local merchants. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Our translation of the Turkish was incorrect. In the excerpt we included, the boy is yelling, "Help for Gaza."]

(Soundbite of fundraiser)

AMOS: Turks donate every day, digging deep to give what they can. Emotions may 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 here.

Ms. SAMIYA FIDON (Fundraiser Volunteer): (Through translator)At the end of the day, we are a Muslim country. We cannot have an alliance with people who are against Islam.

AMOS: 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 that 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.

Mr. FARUK LOGOGLU (Former Ambassador to Washington): We have lost some ground. It could have been managed better by the Turkish leaders, by the Turkish prime minister, because what's important is not the temporary points that you gain; it's the final score.

AMOS: The score in domestic politics is all in Erdogan's favor.

(Soundbite of political rally)

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

Professor SOLI OZEL (Professor, Newspaper Columnist): Finally, the authorities have also come to their senses, and now there's an attempt for damage control.

AMOS: 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 this hospital at Ankara. Turkey sponsored free treatment for patients from Gaza. Sabri Shami(ph), wrapped in bandages, was wounded by an Israeli shell that shattered his leg.

Mr. SABRI SHAMI: Now in the hospital, I'm walking very good.

AMOS: The Turkish doctors made you better?

Mr. SHAMI: The people in Turkey are nice.

AMOS: 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 be back to business as usual soon. Officials from the Turkish Foreign Ministry are heading to Washington for what they call calming talks with U.S. officials and American Jewish groups.

But commentators in Turkey continue to ask: Is there long-term damage to Turkey's regional role? Hugh Pope, based in Istanbul, is with the International Crisis Group.

Mr. HUGH POPE (International Crisis Group): I don't think that 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 and has a military-training arrangement with Israel. All these things have not been affected one whit.

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

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Istanbul.

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