x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Uncertainty over Turkey's mediator role

Critics say prime minster's fierce criticism of Israel's attacks on Gaza could undermine the country's position as a peacemaker.

A rally in Ankara protesting against Israel's attacks on Gaza reflects the growing animosity in Turkey towards the Jewish state.
A rally in Ankara protesting against Israel's attacks on Gaza reflects the growing animosity in Turkey towards the Jewish state.

ISTANBUL // Turkey's leaders are trying to put a brave face on what critics say is the damage done to the country's mediating role in the region as a result of the prime minister's public criticism of Israel's recent actions in Gaza. "In my opinion, Turkey has lost much of the role it could play in the Middle East during this period," Hikmet Cetion, a former Turkish foreign minister and parliamentary speaker, told Cumhuriyet newspaper in an interview published yesterday. "It is a big mistake to be seen to be siding with Hamas when you want to mediate" between the sides in the Gaza conflict. During the fighting in Gaza, Mr Erdogan had criticised Israel for using "disproportionate force" and creating a "human tragedy". He also appeared to feel personally disappointed by Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who visited Ankara shortly before the Gaza offensive but did not inform his hosts about his plans for an attack on Gaza. Mr Erdogan called on the international community not to look for a solution of the problems in Gaza by leaving out Hamas, because Hamas had come to power with a democratic mandate and therefore deserved to be heard. The justice minister, Mehmet Ali Sahin, called Israel "the biggest provocateur of global terror in the world". "In this war, Turkey sided with Hamas," columnist Riza Turmen wrote in the Milliyet daily. "To be a mediator, the two sides have to trust in the impartiality, the objectivity of the mediator. If you are with one side and against the other, how can that side trust you?" Turkey has had strong ties with Israel for many years, including a military partnership since 1996, while also being close to the Palestinians. In 2006, Turkey became the first Nato country to host a Hamas delegation for official talks in Ankara. In an effort to play a more active role in the Middle East in recent years, Turkey sent soldiers to Lebanon as part of an international peace force there and brought Israel and Syria together for indirect peace talks. Some observers feel that the country has thrown away its greatest asset by appearing to give up its impartiality. But since the fighting ended, leading politicians have stressed that they see no lasting damage to Turkey's ties with Israel. "Of course, relations between Turkey and Israel continue," the president, Abdullah Gul, told reporters last week. He said Turkey's criticism of the Israeli offensive in Gaza and its warnings that the military action may have long-term negative consequences for Israel itself was a reflection of Ankara's unique role in the Middle East. "There is no other country that can say this openly." Unlike his counterparts from several European nations, Mr Gul was not invited for a meeting in Jerusalem by Mr Olmert a week ago, triggering speculation in the press that Mr Olmert's decision was a sign of how deeply Israel was hurt by Turkey's stance during the Gaza conflict. Both Mr Gul and the foreign minister, Ali Babacan, denied Turkey had been snubbed by the Israeli government. After thousands of Turks took to the streets during the three-week war to condemn Israel and show support for the people in Gaza and for Hamas, Israeli officials and representatives of Jewish groups in the United States have voiced concern about what they say is a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Turkey. Israel's consul general in Istanbul, Mordehai Amihai, told Milliyet that his consulate received hundreds of anti-Semitic e-mails every day during the fighting in Gaza. "We can understand the political criticism directed against Israel, but efforts to turn this political fight into a religious war between Jews and Muslims are very dangerous." Last week, five Jewish organisations wrote a letter to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, to express their "profound concern over the current wave of anti-Semitic manifestations in Turkey". They also stressed that "we disagree with your government's view of the situation in the Gaza Strip and with some of your own harshest statements". There are indications, however, that Mr Erdogan is aware of the sensitivity of the situation. Both he and senior aides have made it clear in recent public statements that, while Turkey may criticise Israel for what it did in Gaza, Ankara is not about to question its relationship with the country in a more fundamental way. When an opposition party called on Mr Erdogan to break off ties with Israel as a sign of protest against the war in Gaza, the prime minister's answer was a clear no. "We are not running a corner shop, we are governing the Turkish republic," Mr Erdogan told a party meeting. Ahmet Davutoglu, senior foreign policy adviser to Mr Erdogan and the architect of Turkey's recent Middle East policy, told reporters that if there had been any question about Turkey's role in the Gaza conflict, the country would not have been invited to the recent summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh. "To be a mediator does not mean to have no position," Mr Davutoglu said. The Turkish government has also stressed that Ankara worked hard behind the scenes to get both sides to agree to a ceasefire even while Mr Erdogan was criticising Israel in public. "We talked to the Egyptians and said: 'It doesn't matter, you take central stage, but we want to get results'," Mr Babacan said in a television interview last week. "The Hamas delegation went to Egypt. That was important, the broken contact between Hamas and Egypt was re-established by our initiative." Mr Amihai, Israel's consul general in Istanbul, agreed with the Turkish government by saying he did not expect the Gaza crisis to have long-lasting negative effects on relations between the two countries. "We had similar experiences in the past," he told Milliyet. Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Centre for Eurasian Strategic Studies, or ASAM, a think-tank in Ankara, said the Gaza crisis had so far shown no sign of going beyond rhetoric. "Relations continue in the economy and the military area," he said. Mr Erdogan's government had probably calculated that it had been accepted as a mediator by Israel anyway. The public criticism directed against Tel Aviv may have served the purpose of gaining "more credibility on the Hamas side", he said. tseibert@thenational.ae