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John Hughes

Turkey’s potential as Middle East leader marred by Israel dispute

In its relatively new role in the Middle East, Turkey holds great potential as an influence for democratic, economic, and diplomatic good. But its dispute with Israel over the Gaza flotilla incident is holding it back.

By John Hughes / October 5, 2011

If asked which Muslim country in the Middle East is most significant to them, many Americans might cite Saudi Arabia because of its oil.

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Some might suggest Egypt because it is the heart of the Arab world. But the fact is that Turkey, perhaps with memories of past Ottoman glory, seems intent on becoming the most influential leader in the greater Middle East, and might overtake Saudi Arabia and Egypt in significance regionally, and for the United States.

Some have surmised that Turkey, a Muslim but non-Arab country with an image as “Islam lite,” could become a constructive counter to extremist Islamists in the area. In particular, it could be a counterforce to Iran, which already aspires to regional dominance. Thus Turkey would join Indonesia, another large Muslim but non-Arab country, as an example of impressive moderate Islamic statehood.

Though Turkey in the past has looked toward the West, it has in recent years been expanding its contacts and influence eastward into the Middle East. Amid the upheaval of the Arab Spring, its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been mostly well received as a champion of democracy in countries now free, while strongly decrying the brutality under way in Syria.

But with Iran he has maintained a balancing relationship, on the one hand trying to protect it from tougher Western sanctions, but simultaneously approving installation in Turkey of a NATO missile shield clearly directed at Iran.

What also seemed to position Turkey as a potential problem solver in one of the region’s most intractable disputes, namely Palestinian statehood, was a friendly association with Israel, including diplomatic relations rare between a Jewish and an Islamic state.

But in recent months, that relationship has become badly frayed. Turkey has expelled Israel’s ambassador. Hopes that Turkey might be a useful interlocutor between the Israeli and Palestinian camps now seem remote.


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