Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Turkey Turning Down the Rhetoric on Israel?

After denouncing Israel’s recent operation in Gaza with some of the harshest rhetoric outside of Venezuela and Iran, is Turkey now making some efforts at reclaiming the image of the neutral regional mediator that it had worked hard to cultivate over the last few years?

An article in today’s Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review suggests just that, noting that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with Israeli president Shimon Peres on Thursday, as part of a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and that Turkey’s defense minister recently made a point of clarifying that a deal to buy Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles was still on track (there had been vociferous calls during the Gaza crisis for Turkey to cancel its various defense deals with Israel).

(UPDATE -- Apparently things didn't go very well at the Davos session that featured both Erdogan and Peres. According to the AP, Erdogan stalked off the stage after being cut off by the moderator during Peres's defense of Israel's recent actions in Gaza. "You are killing people," Erdogan said to Peres, according to the AP. A finger-wagging Peres told Erdogan, meanwhile, that he would have done the same thing had rockets been falling on Istanbul.)

(UPDATE II -- this blog report from the Davos session gives more details on what took place. Interesting reading.)

Most significantly, the article highlights an interview Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan gave the other day to the Milliyet and Radikal newspapers. "Hamas needs to make a decision as to whether it wants to be an armed organization or a political movement. Our advice is to take part in a political movement," Babacan said in the interview. It was the kind of diplomatic language that many wanted to hear coming out of Ankara during the recent fighting.

The Turkish government may now be realizing that it needs to do some damage control. While Erdogan’s harsh words may have been heartfelt and motivated by domestic political considerations – or even, as some Turkish analysts suggest, a calculated ploy to earn Hamas’s trust and pull it away from its traditional backers – it seems Ankara has some image rebuilding to do.

“In my opinion, Turkey has lost much of the role it could play in the Middle East during this period,” Hikmet Cetin, a former Turkish foreign minister and parliamentary speaker, told the Cumhuriyet newspaper in a recent interview. “It is a big mistake to be seen to be siding with Hamas when you want to mediate” between the two sides.

For more on the subject, take a look at this article in The National, which looks at the "uncertainty" surrounding Turkey's continued role as a mediator. And in this column, Milliyet editor Sedat Ergin takes a look at Erdogan's recent rhetoric and analyzes what makes it "problematic."

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