Ankara’s harsh response to Israel’s action is the strongest signal yet that Turkey may be abandoning its efforts to become a regional mediator between Israel and its Muslim neighbors, favoring instead a more pointed foreign policy. The shift will allow it to capitalize on Muslim frustration with Israel, giving an added boost to its already rising profile in the Middle East.
“This mediation thing is over. Turkey now is one of the sides in the Middle East conflict. It is quite clearly opposed to Israel,” says Sami Kohen, a veteran Turkish political analyst and columnist who writes for the Milliyet daily. “This event is almost a climax in this shift.”
“Turkey’s hand in the region is strengthened now,” Mr. Kohen adds. “There is now more reason for Turkey to take a more active part in the events of the Middle East, since it has suffered personally from this attack. Now it can justify its anti-Israeli positions, which get a good deal of sympathy in the Arab and Islamic world.”
Ankara's shift complicates a historic alliance between Turkey and the US, which has become more important in recent years. An air base in southern Turkey is one of the most important transit bases for ferrying troops and supplies to Afghanistan. Turkish mediation, meanwhile, had gotten Israel and Syria back to the peace table until that effort was aborted when the Gaza war broke out.
Increased tension between Turkey and Israel clouds one of the few sunny spots the US had previously enjoyed in the region.
The deterioration in the once-close relationship between Turkey and Israel has been mirrored by an equally precipitous rise in Turkey’s visibility and involvement in the Middle East, an area that it had kept at arm’s length for decades because of historical enmity and mutual suspicion.
After coming to power in 2002, the government of the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) worked to forge close relations with neighbors such as Syria and Iran.
“It’s [an AKP] project whose goal is to set up Turkey as an international player, on the one hand, and to get recognition of Turkey as a moderate, market-friendly leader in the Muslim world and be treated as such in international bodies,” says Anat Lapidot-Firilla, senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
“The significance of this is that we are going to see more and more Turkish pressure to be involved in regional affairs and global affairs. They are raising the level of their requests and their global aspirations.”
Until recently, Turkey’s growing involvement in the Middle East included a desire to parlay its good relations with both Israel and the Arab states into a role as a regional mediator. Ankara, for example, hosted Israel and Syria for a round of (ultimately failed) secret peace talks in 2008.
But for now, analysts say, Turkey appears to have abandoned its mediation efforts in the region in return for a more pronounced leadership role in the Middle East.
“For the time being, I don’t see any kind of opening for the peace process. So if there isn’t any peace process, there isn’t any need for the good offices of a mediator,” says Gencer Ozcan, an expert on Turkey-Israel relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
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Clearly, this rupture between Turkey and Israel has been long coming. As I've written before, Turkey has, for the last few years, pegged its relations with Israel to what happens on the Palestinian front (or, more specifically, on the Gaza front). Although technically not a bilateral issue between the two countries, the situation in Gaza has, in many ways, become the issue that defines the current relations between Israel and Turkey.
In that sense, although the Gaza aid flotilla was organized by a Turkish NGO (the Islamist IHH) and was not sponsored by the Turkish government, it acted as a proxy for Turkish policy. Also, because the Turkish government had elevated the cause of the Gazans to a level of such political importance, there was little room for it to work out a diplomatic solution to the impending flotilla crisis, lest it be accused by its opposition (particularly on the Islamic right) of giving up on the Gazans.
The tragic blunders committed by Israel in this incident are too numerous to count. On the other hand, for a country that has been an increasingly vocal proponent of the power of diplomacy in defusing regional tensions, Turkey, in this case, seemed more than willing to let the tensions rise higher.