Playing mediator in the Middle East has long been one of Turkey’s ambitions, but experts in the region are now calling into doubt the future effectiveness of Turkish efforts considering the recent erosion of ties with Israel.
The rising tensions between Turkey and Israel have not only deteriorated bilateral relations, but also thrown into question U.S. President Barack Obama’s long-awaited peace plan for the Middle East, which would involve both actors, analysts said.
“Nobody seems to know what peace plans Obama has beyond the tired slogans we’ve been hearing. But I can foresee the reluctance of some Arab regimes to submit to U.S. pressure to improve relations with Israel as Ankara represents the public’s will in regard to the country,” Timur Göksel, a Beirut-based former spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
Turkey’s recent decision to postpone Israel’s participation in a joint air-force exercise and announce a similar cooperation with Syria raised concerns over whether Ankara will be able to maintain an unbiased and impartial role in the region. The forging of closer ties between Syria and Turkey came as a new TV drama – “Separation – Palestine in Love and War” – portrays Israeli soldiers killing Palestinian children. After facing harsh criticism from Israel’s right-wing government for the series, Turkey’s public broadcaster removed scenes of Israeli violence against Palestinians.
Turkey has long enjoyed good relations with Israel, but the ties have suffered since Israel’s offensive in Gaza in January, which killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians. The tensions climaxed in a public row between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli President Shimon Peres at a high-profile international gathering in Davos, Switzerland, in January. While Ankara’s increasingly harsh stance toward Israel has prompted worries both at home and abroad, on the streets of Arab nations many people praised Turkey for showing more support for Gaza than Arab leaders.
A military decision?
While saying Turkey’s decision to bar Israel from the military exercise would not be seen as a hostile act, Göksel said the country shows itself to be “down to Earth and less dependent.” Göksel said he did not believe such a decision would have been made by the government, but instead by the Turkish Armed Forces. “I have no access to that information, but something must have truly annoyed military officials.”
On the other hand, Professor Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said Turkey has to position itself either on the Islamic or Western side.
“Holding official meetings with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and inviting [Sudanese President Omar] al-Bashir to Ankara when no other countries were willing to do so is, of course, deteriorating Turkey’s relations with the West and Israel,” Inbar told the Daily News in a phone interview.
However, according to Muhammad Nuredin, the head of the Center for Strategic Studies in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, Turkey has already chosen its side. Nuredin said Turkey’s new foreign policy agenda leans more to the East than to the Israeli-Western axis and serves both Turkish interests and regional power. “This would indeed disturb Israel and contradict with its regional policy,” he said, echoing the idea that the Turkish military was protecting Turkish interests by excluding Israeli forces from the joint military drill.
Oytun Orhan, a prominent Turkish researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies based in Ankara, said Turkey’s recent decisions regarding Israel were leading the Jewish state to shift its regional politics as well. “Relations with Turkey are of utmost importance for Israel, especially after the distant stance of the U.S. toward Israel and the growing nuclear threat of Iran. Therefore, rising tension with Ankara would only lead to loneliness for Israel in the region,” Orhan said. “The latest developments … might cause pressure to rise in Israel and prove that Israel will no longer be ‘the spoiled kid’ of the Middle East.”
Nuredin agreed and said Turkey’s mediating role between Palestinians, Syrians and Israelis is still alive because no other country holds such close ties with each regional actor. “The cool relations between Turkey and Israel should not have a negative influence on the Middle Eastern peace process … but we do not yet see any serious plans offered by Obama,” Nuredin said. “If he does, surely Turkey will be of greater importance.”
Asked about the worsening relations between Israel and Turkey and the implications in regard to both countries being American allies, Inbar added: “Turkey will not be a great ally [of the United States] as long as it keeps refusing to impose sanctions on Iran. A Western orientation in both domestic and international policies would assure Turkey’s progress in democratization.”