Israel's attack on Gaza continues to put Turkey and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a difficult spot. Turkey still very much wants to play the role of regional mediator (and the country would likely be a key part of a multinational force that may end up monitoring the Egypt-Gaza border as part of a cease-fire agreement), but Erdogan's harsh criticism of Israel has some critics asking (see this New York Times article) whether Turkey has now lost its chance to play the role of honest broker between Jerusalem and its neighbors.
At the same time, Erdogan and his government are confronting an unprecedented level of public anger in Turkey over Israel's actions in Gaza. Large protests have been held almost daily throughout Turkey. An Israeli basketball team recently playing in Ankara had to flee to the safety of the locker room after angry protesters rushed onto the court. With local elections coming up in March, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) certainly don't want to be seen as too close to Israel right now. Some of the anti-Israel protests are already featuring signs and placards showing Erdogan shaking hands with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, accusing the Turkish leader of "collaborating" with Israel. A recent poll taken in Istanbul found the liberal Islamic AKP losing ground, partially to the old school Islamists of the Felicity Party (SP), which has been a driving force behind several of the large anti-Israel protests.
There have been calls from members of parliament and Turkish NGOs for Ankara to freeze relations with Israel, but Erdogan might be limited in how far he can downgrade the ties with his problematic ally. If Turkey stops talking to Israel, then it loses an essential trump card that it uses to promote itself as a regional mediator, which is that it has good relations with all the countries in the Middle East. Furthermore, Turkey's connection to Israel serves as a kind of conduit to Washington, giving Ankara improved access to Congress and American Jewish organizations, which have frequently served as a surrogate lobby for Turkey.
Many in Washington (and, to a certain extent, even in Brussels and other European capitals) look at Turkey's ties with Israel as a kind of litmus test of Ankara's "Western" orientation. A move away from Israel would be seen by some -- among them some fairly influential people -- as a move away from Turkey's traditional foreign policy path.
For an expanded analysis of the issue, please take a look at my recent piece in Eurasianet.
UPDATE -- In a move that's raising some eyebrows here, Turkey's Ministry of Education sent out a directive that called for all primary and secondary school students to observe a moment of silence for the children of Gaza this past Tuesday (Jan. 13). An article in the Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Report speaks with some child psychologists and educators who are critical of the ministry's directive. Meanwhile, the paper's chief columnist, Yusuf Kanli, fears the Turkish government is "exploiting" students for political purposes.
(Photo: Marchers at a recent protest in Istanbul against Israel's attack in Gaza. The men are holding signs that show Turkish PM Erdogan shaking hands with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Olmert, with the words "These are our killers" written underneath. By Yigal Schleifer)