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How Turkey lost its influence with Israel 2 décembre 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Toronto Star (Canada) Sunday, December 2, 2012, p. A11

Rosie DiManno in Istanbul, Turkey

Amidst the illogical and irrational assessment that has rendered Hamas a « winner » in Gaza’s ceasefire with Israel following an eight-day miniwar, the « loser » designation has somehow devolved to Turkey.

This is a bewildering state of affairs for the only sturdily democratic country – apart from Israel – in the Middle East, a heretofore paramount regional power broker that preened with distinction for leveraging influence within the neighbourhood of nations.

But in the past fortnight Turkey took a back seat to Egypt in both face-to-face and phone diplomacy. Ankara was sidelined by the frenzy of negotiation finesse that achieved a truce in the latest Palestinian conflict, averted a ground invasion of Gaza, and made a sudden statecraft darling out of Mohammed Morsi.

The Egyptian leader may have just as quickly squandered that international currency with last week’s bid to sweepingly enhance his powers via a constitutional decree that would put all the president’s decisions beyond legal review – inviting grim comparisons to the autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, he replaced. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, galvanized anew, poured into Tahrir Square to holler their opposition to what they construed as a move to impose strict Islamist values. Their protests were countered on Saturday by a massive pro-Morsi rally outside Cairo University organized by the Brotherhood, showing muscle.

Those are Egypt’s internal politics, however. Externally, Egypt has become the de facto protector of Palestinians and guarantor of Hamas’s legitimacy, despite Hamas’s continuing terrorist designation in Washington and other western capitals, including Ottawa. Meanwhile, Turkey, for all its ardent advocacy on behalf of Palestinians over the past decade – reversing their misfortunes is a cornerstone of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy – was reduced to bit player on the world stage.

Ankara got a nod of thanks from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for helping to defuse the crisis in Gaza and brokering the ceasefire with Israel. But nobody is under any illusion about who was the pivotal mediator in bringing the two sides to grudging heel: Morsi.

For public consumption, Erdogan has framed it differently, of course, claiming a troika of interceders – Turkey, Egypt and Qatar – had made the most effective diplomatic overtures to end the fighting, while acknowledging it had occurred under Cairo’s stewardship. « Turkey played an important role in the Israel-Hamas ceasefire, » he insisted to reporters last week. In truth, Turkey assumed a supporting role at best, the character actor in the cast: Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu crying over bodies of the dead and wounded while visiting a Gaza hospital, Erdogan providing the emotional rhetoric back home. « Every drop of Palestinian blood is pouring from the veins of all Muslims and every tear dropping from their eyes is our tear, too. »

That Turkey has been overtaken by Egypt in the diplomatic sweepstakes can be directly attributed to the increasingly strident tone Erdogan has taken with Israel in recent years, a posture that plays well to a deeply conservative Muslim domestic audience but which has relegated Ankara to also-ran go-between status.

There was a time, not too long ago – before Erdogan came to power – when Turkey and Israel reaped the benefits of uncommonly close bilateral relations. Their navies conducted exercises together. Israelis flocked to Turkey as tourists. In moments of crisis, Israel could dial up Ankara, or vice versa, and expect a friendly voice at the other end of the line, a trustworthy ally and mediator within a region of intractable animosities.

Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008 ended all that. A year later, during an international summit in Davos, Switzerland, Erdogan stormed off the stage after exchanging bitter words with Israeli President Shimon Peres, calling the attack on Gaza a « crime against humanity. »

There would be no rapprochement; quite the opposite.

Turkey was livid when Israeli commandos stormed a ship flying a Turkish flag, the Mavi Marmara, trying to break the naval blockade of Gaza in 2010, which resulted in the deaths of nine activist Turks. Ankara essentially cut off diplomatic ties with Israel afterwards and just last month put four of the Israeli commandos on trial in absentia.

Erdogan’s denunciation of Israel hit hyperbolic fever pitch during the most recent conflict in Gaza: « I say that Israel is a terrorist state and its acts are terrorist acts. » He also accused Israel of « ethnic cleansing. »

The hostile position didn’t leave Turkey any room to mediate effectively with Israel, which eliminated Ankara from back-channel discussions. It was Morsi who held the advantage because of Egypt maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel, albeit lowered since Mubarak days.

All of this put Turkey on the outside, looking in, when diplomacy was essential in turning down the heat in Gaza. The gap has been noticed, at least by Turkey’s independent media. « Turkey . . . has burned its bridges with Israel and the prospects for building new ones currently appears nil, » the privately owned mass-circulation daily Hurriyet observed on its website.

Turkey has lost the capability of engaging with a multitude of diverse actors in the region. As Kadri Gürsel, columnist for the Turkish daily Milliyet wrote during the height of the Gaza conflict: « Which Turkey is more valuable in the eyes of regional and global actors . . . Turkey that has maintained enough distance to talk to Israel, or a Turkey that has no communication with Israel? Which of the two would be a more influential actor in its region? Of course, the first one. … Turkey, however, cannot talk to Israel. »

Or maybe they are talking, quietly, belatedly. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that officials from both countries are trying to revive diplomatic ties.

There is still one way for Turkey to make itself vitally useful in Gaza, an idea proposed by the Palestinian ambassador in Ankara, Nabil Maarouf: deploy peacekeepers to the beleaguered strip. Of course, that would require Israeli consent.

Turkey has recent experience of peacekeeping duties. As a NATO member, its troops assumed security of Kabul, taking over regional command for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan’s capital three years ago and extending its commitment there through 2013.

Whether Ankara would even contemplate military exposure in the hotter hellhole of Gaza is an entirely different matter.


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