Turks have traditionally supported
the Palestinians' right to their homeland
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The UN human rights chief has endorsed the Goldstone report on
Israel's war on Gaza, and called for "impartial, independent....
Since the Israeli war on Gaza last January, Turkey's role in Middle
Eastern politics has become significantly more prominent.
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.
Istanbul's 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.
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 - 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 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
It is a popular approach. Erdogan says that the decision to exclude
Israel from Anatolia Eagle drill was based on Turkish public
"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
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
uprising in 2000,
Turkey condemned the 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
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
Erdogan's coded historical message was clear: Turkish policy toward
the Middle East is no longer led by political expedience, but by
Until recently, political analysts and observers characterised the
relationship between Turkey and Israel as one based on mutual
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
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 Istanbul still needs the US Jewish
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
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 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. 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 specialised 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 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 is 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."