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.
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Turkey is in a nasty diplomatic fight with the Jewish state, citing an agenda of complaints that conceivably could lead to a naval confrontation. Turks have sought to breach an Israeli maritime blockade of Palestinian Gaza, and Ankara threatens to use warships to assure free passage of aid to the coastal strip.Skip to next paragraph
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All this could not have come at a less opportune time for the US president.
He is in the midst of a reelection campaign in which the support and financing by American Jewry is important. His refusal to support the Palestinians’ bid for a vote on statehood at the United Nations, and his sturdy support of Israel throughout the UN bid, further erode his standing in the Islamic world.
It was in Turkey – and Cairo – early in his presidency that he delivered hallmark outreach speeches to the Islamic world. The criticism since from Arab capitals is that there has been no real follow-up. Now, having opposed the Palestinians’ UN request to recognize statehood, and being committed to the championship of Israel for an electioneering year, his popularity in Arab capitals is unlikely to improve.
President Obama clearly understands the potential importance of Turkey and its 77 million people. Of the few world leaders Mr. Obama scheduled for meetings alongside this year’s UN General Assembly session in New York, Mr. Erdogan was one. He got a long and earnest Obama appeal to cool the confrontation with Israel.
But Turkey can be independent. It resisted then-President George W. Bush’s entreaties to let American troops transit Turkish territory in 2003 to open a second front in the Iraq war. It may not be easily persuaded by Obama to abandon a tough line with Israel that plays well throughout the Arab world.
That is unfortunate. Erdogan is to be mostly commended for promoting his country’s blend of Islam with democracy as an example to be followed by Arab states emerging from dictatorship.
But it would be sad – and potentially harmful – if Turkey’s anti-Israel posture eliminated it from a constructive role in forging a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.