A setback for Turkey as Mideast broker

Prime Minister Erdogan's popular tirade on Gaza also hurt his credibility.

By , Correspondent 

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    Ire: At the World Economic Forum, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (l.) berated Israeli President Shimon Peres on Gaza.
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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent outburst at the World Economic Forum, where he berated Israeli President Shimon Peres for Israel's attack on Gaza, has won him unprecedented popularity in the Arab world.

Mr. Erdogan's tirade may help Turkey reconnect with the region after decades of being estranged. But it could also damage Turkey's aspirations to be a mediating power in the Middle East, particularly between Israel and its neighbors.

"The cost [of his actions] was possibly the loss of something that was starting, but that hadn't matured, and that was Turkey's emerging role in the Middle East," says Semih Idiz, a columnist who writes on foreign affairs for the Milliyet newspaper. "Erdogan made his position very apparent, and it's hard to see how he will be an honest broker at this stage."

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to visit Turkey Friday, according to Turkish newspapers. Also this week Turkish President Abdullah Gul made a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia Thursday.

One of the topics expected to be on the agenda was the recent war in Gaza, during which Mr. Erdogan's criticism of Israel was especially harsh – stronger than that of most Arab leaders.

The prime minister accused Israel of committing "crimes against humanity" and said it should be barred from the United Nations for ignoring a Security Council resolution calling on the fighting to stop.

At the Davos panel, which also included UN head Ban Ki Moon and Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, Erdogan responded angrily to Mr. Peres's defense of Israel's actions. "When it is time to kill, you know how to kill well. I know well how you kill children on beaches, how you shoot them," Erdogan told the Israeli president, wagging his finger. Erdogan also accused Israel of violating the sixth of the Ten Commandments – "Thou shalt not kill."

The performance earned him plaudits at home and throughout the Middle East. In Gaza, thousands gathered the next day to honor Erdogan at a rally festooned with Turkish and Palestinian flags.

The cheers in what was once an Ottoman territory were an important indication that Turkey's effort to reconnect with the Arab world after years of being cut off, was bearing fruit.

'Honest broker' image takes a hit

Still, analysts warn that the mood on the street might not reflect that of the region's leaders.

"I think certainly, in the eyes of the Arab street, Erdogan is now very popular. But it doesn't improve his mediating role anywhere else but in Syria," says Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University.

Erdogan's rhetoric may have been especially costly, experts warn, in terms of Turkey's continuing role in working to bring Israel and Syria together. Playing on its good relations with both countries, Ankara facilitated a series of indirect talks between the two countries that it hoped would lead to direct peace negotiations.

But those talks are unlikely to continue under the new Israeli government due to be formed after Feb. 10 elections because the figures involved in the talks will depart, says Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat in Turkey and chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society, a group working toward the resumption of talks between the two countries.

"From the Turkish side, the mechanism has not only collapsed but we have entered a situation in which I have a lot of doubt that an incoming Israeli government will look at Turkey as a reliable mediator," Mr. Liel says.

"We took a big hit on the Israeli and Turkish side of the triangle, but we now have an American aspect to this that we didn't have before. Everyone is waiting for a signal from Obama," he adds.

Erdogan has said that part of his anger at Israel stems from the fact that he believes Turkey was close to getting Israel and Syria to enter direct negations and that the Gaza attack scuttled that. But many experts believe the indirect talks had already reached a plateau before the war in Gaza.

"The fundamental issues were not bridgeable by Turkey. For that, you need the United States," says Mr. Barkey.

"The issue is that the Turks expected to be sitting at the table once the Americans picked up the ball, that they had earned it. The question is, Have the Gaza events dealt Turkey out of this?"

Turkey: needed to 'rehabilitate' Syria

But some warn that cutting Turkey out of the peace process, particularly when it comes to Syria, would be a mistake. Joshua Landis, codirector of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University and author of the "Syria Comment" blog, says that Ankara's improved relations with Damascus have helped attenuate the link between Syria and Iran.

If Syria and the US were to start talking, Turkey could act as a "handmaiden," Landis says.

"Turkey is going to help rehabilitate Syria. That is Erdogan's entire strategy: 'It's not that we are siding with Syria and Iran against Israel. It's that we are going to help Obama. We are the key to the Islamic world because we are the enlightened Muslims. We can be the crucial go-betweens,' " he says.

"There's a lot of power to that argument."

Trying to undo rhetorical damage

For now, there appear to be some signs that Ankara is trying to step back from Erdogan's fiery rhetoric. Speaking to reporters after a recent cabinet meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said: "We give special importance to our bilateral ties with Israel, and we want to preserve ties with that country."

"We are now looking towards the future. Turkey is not targeting Israel and the Israeli people," he said.

But some observers expressed concern that, ultimately, the substance of Turkey's message – that it should be seen as an important part of the equation in resolving the Middle East conflict  – is being lost in the way it is being delivered.

"For the long run, the style and the rhetoric of Erdogan are unsustainable," says Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University.

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