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Is "new Turkey" rising after Arab unrest

By Oussama Elbaroudi and Rahul Venkit (Xinhua)

09:53, September 15, 2011

BRUSSELS, Sept. 14 (Xinhua) -- As Turkey continues to assert its power in the Arab world, it is being met by growing concern in Israel and its Western allies.

Earlier this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayep Erdogan began a tour of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, three countries whose former regimes have been swept away in unrest of varied extent.

Experts, academics and diplomats are currently getting to grips with the relatively new phenomenon of Turkey reassuming its historical role in a region it shaped for centuries under the Ottoman empire until World War II.

However, some observers note that Turkey's sudden thrust into the international spotlight and playing the "big brother" in the region is more a matter of timing than a conscious change of foreign policy.

For its part, the Israeli government is condemning Ankara for pursuing a neo-Ottomanist foreign policy in the Middle East. This marks a departure from the "zero-problems-with-neighbors" policy of Turkish Foreign Minister, and arguably Erdogan's right-hand man, Ahmet Davutoglu. In the past, Turkey's more conservative and compliant stance in international affairs meant it sometimes acted against national interests.

For example, Turkey supported the war in Iraq in 2003 under pressure from the U.S. despite fierce opposition from conservative voters within the country. Erdogan's challenge was trying to assert Turkey's own role as a dominant player in the region, while appeasing the West not in the least to counter the European Union's (EU) unspoken rejection of Turkey as a full member.

"Turkey has always used its foreign policy toward the Arab world as a business card to the European Union, but it failed," said Dorothee Schmid, researcher at the Paris-based policy institute IFRI.

Despite Turkey having good relations -- politically and economically -- with the fallen regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, it was swift to adapt to the region's new political landscape.

Commentators point out that the new rulers in the three countries are keen to associate themselves with Turkey given its reputation as a democratic, stable and moderate Islamic nation. Its ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is said to be an "ideological lighthouse", having been credited with proving that democracy and Islam can not only coexist but also prosper.

Let's not forget economics. "With business between Ankara and Arab countries accounting for nearly 20 percent of Turkish GDP, Turkey wants to ensure good relations not only for diplomacy but also for trade purposes," added Schmid.

Turkey and Israel butting heads

Despite being traditional allies, relations have soured between Ankara and Tel Aviv since the 2008 bombing of the Gaza strip and the flotilla incident last year when 9 Turkish humanitarian workers were gunned down by the Israeli military when they defied a blockade to deliver aid to Gaza.

Since then, Turkey has taken a series of actions against Israel such as expelling its ambassador from Ankara and suspending military agreements.

Furthermore, Erdogan is taking the Gaza blockade issue to the International Courts of Justice and is fast becoming the most vocal supporter of Palestine's bid for recognition at the United Nations later this month.

"Recognition of the Palestinian state is the only correct way. It is not a choice but an obligation. Let's raise the Palestinian flag and let that flag be the symbol of peace and justice in the Middle East," the Turkish Prime Minister told Arab league ministers on Tuesday.

"As long as Israel does not apologize, they cannot expect of us any normalization of relations," Erdogan added.

Such strong words show that Israel needs Turkey more than the other way around, commentators say. Israel has since tried sticking to its guns with Turkey while hoping western allies would calm down Erdogan, a policy that has failed thus far.

"Bold statements against Israel appears to be the easiest solution for Erdogan to enhance Turkey's image among Arab countries," Schmid told Xinhua.

"Turkey's newfound assertiveness proves it is driven to stop Israel's perceived bully tactics in the region," she added.

Mediterranean and European alliances

In Egypt, Turkey has found a strong regional ally. Egypt's transitional government reopened its border with Gaza in May this year drastically undermining the blockade imposed by Israel since 2006. This puts at stake the stability of Israel's borders, already weakened because of the Arab unrest.

The recent attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo was yet another stark reminder of the challenges the Jewish state faces in the region.

"The Turkish government is creating for itself a regional leadership role by capitalizing on public sentiment on Palestine at the expense of relations with Israel," said Kadri Kaan Renda, research fellow at the Centre for Strategic Research and Analysis in Istanbul.

However, what makes the ongoing tension particularly alarming is that political skirmishes between Israel and Turkey have turned into a tug-of-war in the eastern Mediterranean.

In order to counter the influence of Cairo and Ankara, Israel is turning to Greece and Cyprus, negotiating new deals to export energy and gas to Europe.

Turkey responded by issuing the following statement. "Israel has proclaimed its right to operate in exclusive economics zone in the eastern Mediterranean. You will see that Israel will not have this exclusive right because Turkey as the guarantor of the Northern Republic of Cyprus has already taken measures in the sector," Erdogan said last week.

Experts do not believe that this new Tel Aviv-Nicosia-Athens alliance will be a major player given the debt crises and public protests its governments face.

While the West is expected to align itself with Israel as it has done in the past, the diplomatic crisis has put the U.S. in an uncomfortable situation. The U.S. relies on Turkey to help stabilize a post-war Iraq and act as a bridge to Iran.

Furthermore, the Obama administration has of late slapped Israel on the wrists when it was seen to be crossing the line, more so than the previous Bush regime ever did. This new U.S. outspokenness against Israel is something Turkey has taken full advantage of, feel analysts.

Meanwhile, Europe continues to offer moral and practical support to the Middle East. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is said to be in regular contact with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, having recently paid a visit to the region to pledge the bloc's support to the reconstruction and nation-building efforts there.

But few think the EU will directly mediate between Turkey and Israel. "I doubt the EU will make any statement because that's an extremely sensitive topic. Europe has not even been involved in the investigations into the Maramara Flotilla incident," said Amanda Paul, researcher at the European Policy Centre in Brussels.


Leave your comment1 comments

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Mehmet at 2011-09-2186.27.121.*
Your commentators are wrong after the flotilla incident the Isrealis sought friendship with the Greeks against the Turks,and Turkey has responded with friendship with Eygpt which Erdogan visited only recently.

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