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Turkey: Israel's Gaza Offensive Presents Ankara with Diplomatic Challenge

Israel's attack in Gaza is proving to be both a test and an opportunity for Turkey's continuing efforts to establish itself as a regional mediator in the Middle East, observers say.

Ankara, for the last few years, has actively sought to establish itself as a kind of regional (soft) power broker, working to strengthen relations with neighbors that it has previously kept at an arm's length, and even bringing Israel and Syria together for a round of secret meetings in Istanbul.

Turkey has been conducting its own shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, with the country's prime minister recently visiting Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in an effort to bring about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. But harsh government criticism of Israel, along with rising popular anger to Israel's actions inside Turkey, could compromise Ankara's ability to play the role of honest broker, experts say.

"We think that Turkey is a country that has a role in the Middle East. Turkey has contacts to all the countries in the region. They are on speaking terms with everybody. The potential is there for Turkey to help facilitate a solution in the Middle East," says a Western diplomat based in Ankara.

But, adds the diplomat: "During this crisis, Turkey might have a bigger impact if they had a slightly more balanced position, and if the prime minister's criticism of Israel had not been so harsh."

Indeed, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's criticism of Israel has been significantly stronger than even that of many Arab leaders. As the Turkish newspaper Vatan noted dryly on its front page, the only other leaders in the Middle East to use language like Erdogan's have been regional firebrands Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Muammar Khadaffi.

Speaking at a recent municipal election campaign rally, for example, Erdogan said Israel was "perpetrating inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction. Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents."

Erdogan also has characterized Israel's actions as a "crime against humanity," and has publicly stated that he is refusing to take phone calls from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert until Israel stops its Gaza attack.

Some critics are wondering whether Erdogan's statements have undercut Turkey's ability to deliver on what it insists is the added value it brings to the Middle Eastern table -- its ability to serve as a conduit to Israel. "The reactions by the prime minister at the start of the operation have weakened a very important trump card in his hand," political analyst Cengiz Candar said on NTV, a Turkish news network. "The war in Gaza has . . . battered the country's political influence."

In Israel, some of Erdogan's statements have been greeted with dismay. "There is a lot of anger in Israel over what Erdogan said," says Ephraim Inbar, Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel's Bar Ilan University. "Turkey needs to understand that this is like the talks with Syria. For Israel, Hamas is a red flag; it's seen as a terrorist organization that wants to destroy it."

"I think Turkey has exaggerated this time around," Inbar adds.

Still, experts say that mutual interests -- particularly on regional security issues -- will keep Turkish-Israeli relations from rupturing. The two countries, for example, signed a $141 million deal on the eve of the Gaza attack that calls for Israel to provide the Turkish air force with airborne space imagery intelligence systems over the next four years.

"Long term I don't see much impact. Both nations need each other," says Lale Sariibrahimoglu, a military analyst based in Ankara.

"There might be a kind of a cold atmosphere between the two countries for perhaps weeks to come, but I don't anticipate any further action by Turkey in terms of reducing relations, particularly in terms of diplomatic ties," said Sami Kohen, a columnist with the daily Milliyet and a veteran observer of Turkish foreign policy.

Despite his own impassioned rhetoric, Erdogan has rejected calls by members of the Turkish parliament to suspend Turkey's ties with Israel. "I would like to remind those who call for Turkey to freeze ties with Israel that we administer the republic of Turkey, not a grocery market," Erdogan recently told parliament.

Erdogan's reaction is based on a real anger that his efforts of the last few years to bridge the divides in the Middle East -- particularly between Israel and Syria -- may have gone up in smoke because of Israel's actions, but there is also a domestic component to his response, analysts say.

The public reaction in Turkey to what is happening in Gaza has been visibly angry, with large daily protests taking place all over Turkey. Even a basketball game between a Turkish and Israeli team in Ankara had to be called off after shouting protestors stormed the court. "This is the first time that the public reaction has been so widespread. It's very intensive this time. There haven't been such widespread and spontaneous anti-Israel sentiments before," says Milliyet's Kohen. "It's not just the Islamic circles. It's also the secularists and the nationalists. The protests have been representative of the whole of Turkish society. I don't remember seeing such a public reaction on any other issue before."

With Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) facing local elections this March, the government's relations with Israel could be a liability. Already, placards have been appearing at protests showing Erdogan and Olmert shaking hands and accusing the AKP of "collaborating" with Israel.

Erdogan may also find himself walking a tightrope when it comes to distancing Turkey from Israel. Ankara has long depended on Israel to act as a conduit to the Washington and to American Jewish organizations, who have frequently acted as a kind of surrogate lobby for Turkey in Washington. In the past, Jewish organizations have been instrumental in helping Turkey block efforts to introduce resolutions in Congress recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915.

"There is real anger with Erdogan on Capital Hill and among people who follow Turkey in Washington," says a Washington-based consultant who closely monitors Turkish affairs. "Nobody is threatening anything right now, or knows if there are going to be repercussions, but this is going to have an effect."

Adds the consultant: "There is a sense that Erdogan's used up a lot of good will."

Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.

Turkey: Israel's Gaza Offensive Presents Ankara with Diplomatic Challenge

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