Erdogan said Turks supported his decision to cancel military exercises with Israel

Since the Israeli war on Gaza last January, Turkey’s role in Middle Eastern politics has become significantly more prominenft.

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party took office in 2002, it pledged that it would not forsake its historic, religious and cultural bonds with other Muslim countries.

During the Gaza conflict, the party made good on its promise. Turkey’s government did not hesitate to voice its displeasure at Israel’s military actions, which it said were targeting the civilian population of Gaza.

Last week, the Turkish government demonstrated its loyalties again, banning Israeli warplanes from participating in an international military air exercise.

The Anatolia Eagle exercise has been held since 2001 under the auspices of a Turkish-Israeli military agreement signed in 1996. The war-game usually involves Turkish, Israeli and US troops, and has been seen by Israel as a golden opportunity for its pilots to practise over a much larger air-space than usual.

The Turkish decision raised eyebrows in Israel, where Turkey has long been seen as an ally, and has prompted concerns about future relations between the two countries.

“It raises the question: What direction is Turkish policy taking?” wondered Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, after Turkey’s decision was made public.

Turks have traditionally supported the Palestinians’ right to their homeland

Revived role
Observers believe that Turkey’s new attitude toward Israel is part of a plan to revive the role it believes it should play as the leader and guardian of the Muslim World.”The new Turkish policy is interesting, in terms of trying to regain its ties with the Arab and Muslim world,” said Mounzer Sleiman, the director of the Centre for American and Arab Studies.

“It is not the first Turkish government that has tried to do this, but the aspiration to join the EU was an obstacle. This government realises that the road to the EU is rough and complicated, so it chose to go with its strategic plans in its Muslim environment instead of waiting indefinitely.

“Turkey also believes it is traditionally and historically linked to the rest of the Middle East – the Turkish Ottoman Empire ruled large parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe for almost five centuries, until its defeat in the first world war.

The new policy, aimed at placing Ankara at the centre of the Middle East’s geopolitics and regaining Turkey’s former power and influence over the region, makes conscious reference to the country’s imperial past. The trend is even known as Neo-Ottoman, a term coined by Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister and architect of the policy.It is a popular approach. Erdogan says that the decision to exclude Israel from the Anatolia Eagle drill was based on Turkish public opinion.

“Anyone who exercises political power has to take account of public opinion … It is a question of sincerity… I want people to know that Turkey is a powerful country which takes its own decisions,” he said. “We do not take orders from anyone.”

Erdogan believes that the Turkish people back his goals to use the country as a counter-weight in relations between Israel, the West and the Muslim World. This viewpoint is shared by many observers.

“Anyone who looks at the Turkish press and listens to people in the street would realise how much the Turkish public opinion is in support of the government’s new approach toward Israel,” says Yousef al-Sharif, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Turkey.”Also, the nature of the current Israeli government, which consists of conservative figures like Netanyahu and [foreign minister Avigdor] Lieberman, makes it easier for Erdogan to take such a tough approach against Israel.”

History matters

Since it took office, Erdogan’s government has been keen to show that Israel is no longer the only serious power in the region. During the Palestinian intifada uprising in 2000, Turkey condemned Israel’s use of force and cancelled a proposed water deal with Tel Aviv.

By the end of 2008, the neo-Ottoman doctrine was more advanced. When Tel Aviv launched a war on Gaza in late December 2008, Erdogan squarely blamed the Israelis.

But he also invoked the shared history of Jews and Turks to make his point: “We are speaking as the grandsons of Ottomans who treated your ancestors [Jews] as guests in this land [Turkey] when they were expelled from Europe,” he said.

But such references will also remind Israel that the cash-strapped Ottoman Empire turned down an offer by the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl to cede Jerusalem to the Jews in return for huge loans and a personal reward for Sultan Abd al-Hamid II (1842-1918).

Erdogan’s coded historical message was clear: Turkish policy towards the Middle East is no longer led by political expedience, but by principle.

Erdogan, left, convinced Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, to resume Israel talks [AFP]
Regional mediator?
Until recently, political analysts and observers characterised the relationship between Turkey and Israel as one based on mutual interests.Israel needed a strong regional Muslim ally, and Turkey needed the Jewish lobby in the US to prevent Greek and Armenian groups from securing a congressional condemnation against Turkey for its alleged role in the deaths of more than a million Armenians in the early 20th century.Some observers, however, now believe that Erdogan’s current Middle East approach could jeopardise the delicate balance of power in the region.Elter Turkmen, a former Turkish foreign minister, warned earlier this year that the short-term benefits may be outweighed by the long-term disadvantages. “I do not think Turkish-Israeli relations would reach the point of clash,” he said.”Both sides will lose, Israel will lose a reliable partner and Turkey would lose the backing of Jewish lobby in Washington.”

Still, others question whether Turkey still needs the US Jewish lobby.

Turkey and Armenia signed a landmark peace accord earlier this month, pledging to restore ties and open their shared border after a century of hostility stemming from what Armenians said was the mass killing of their people by Ottoman forces during the first world war.

Some believe that Israel and the US will nevertheless continue to need Turkish help in brokering indirect talks between Israel and Syria, widely seen as a crucial but difficult step in the Middle East peace process.

In June 2008, and after years of diplomatic effort, Turkey succeeded in kick-starting indirect Syrian–Israeli talks. In Iraq, Turkey maintained balanced relationships with almost all Iraqi factions. The culmination of that successful policy was the visit of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shia leader of the al-Mahdi Army, in May 2009.

Turkey also played a pivotal role in brokering a strategic deal between al-Sadr, the Iraqi government, the UK and the US. Al-Mahdi Army militias laid down their arms and released US and British hostages they had been holding since 2007.

In return, the Iraqi government stopped the arrest campaign against the al-Mahdi Army and released some of its jailed leaders such as Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji, in 2009.

Middle East powerhouse

Bashir Nafie, a Palestinian historian specialising in Turkish politics, believes that Ankara is adopting a multi-directional policy, simultaneously resolving conflicts directly linked to its history (rapprochement with Armenia and resolving its Kurdish problem), and tackling the tensions in the greater region.

He said: “Turkey has realised that its future [is] not only with the EU, but more importantly with its Arab, Muslim and Caucasian neighbours. It also realises that Western arrangements imposed after the first world war are the core of many problems the region is suffering, and it is willing to solve the problems of that heavy heritage.”

Hasan Koni, a former adviser to the Turkish National Security Council, agrees that Turkey is likely to play an increasingly important role in Middle Eastern politics in coming years.

“Given the fact that there are no more neo-cons in the White House, and that the new US administration is attempting to get out of Iraq, the US will need Turkey to stand against Iran in Iraq and the Middle East in general,” he says.

“Turkey is qualified to play that role since it is a Muslim state that maintains ties with both Israelis and Arabs.”