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A setback for Turkey as Mideast broker

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

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent  / February 6, 2009

Ire: At the World Economic Forum, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (l.) berated Israeli President Shimon Peres on Gaza.

Alessandro Della Bella/Keystone/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

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.

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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."

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.