Turkey's Role Between East and West

A week after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's angry exit from an argument with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Turkey is sealing its reputation as a growing power in the Middle East.

Erdogan's stand earned him not a hero's welcome when he returned to Turkey and strong popular support across the Muslim world, uncommon for a Turkish leader.

Erdogan stormed off during a Davos panel discussion Jan. 30, scolding Israel for the Gaza offensive, accusing Peres of "knowing very well how to kill."

"Turkey was the hero on the Arab street. …. Here you have people across the Arab world saying, 'I wish my leader had the backbone of this Turkish leader.' I found that quite remarkable," said Hady Amr, head of the Brookings Institution's outpost in Qatar.

The walkout was widely noticed in the Arab world. It was the climax to Turkey's weeks of vocal opposition to the war in Gaza, and marked Turkey's rising profile in the region. Turkey's increasing engagement with Arab countries and conflicts -- from its warming ties with Syria to its embrace of the Palestinian cause -- has begun to mend historic Arab-Turkish tensions.

This week Turkish President Abdullah Gul wrapped up a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, traditionally one of Turkey's regional rivals.

Turkish leaders insisted that this new diplomacy and the incident at Davos have not jeopardized their country's long alliance with Israel. Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize the Jewish state and has spent six decades strengthening military, commercial and political ties with it.

As part of that relationship, Turkey has been a bridge between Israel and the Arab world, most recently serving as the middleman for indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria.

But analysts said that Erdogan's stance at Davos and, more broadly, his government's perceived sympathy with Hamas, may have undermined Turkey's role as a mediator. Turkey has held talks with Hamas in Damascus and recently offered to represent its interests before the Security Council.

The Davos walkout "aggravated the recently testy relationship between Tel Aviv and Ankara. If, as the Israelis have been saying recently, Israel is no longer willing to accept Turkey as an honest broker, then one could say that Erdogan's outburst has put Turkey firmly on the side of the Palestinians," said Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"In my opinion, Turkey has lost much of the role it could play in the Middle East during this period," former Turkish foreign minister Hikmet Cetion told Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper.

"It is a big mistake to be seen to be siding with Hamas when you want to mediate."

If Turkey risked undermining its status in Israel, the reward was greater stature in the Arab and Muslim world, part of the broader foreign policy vision of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party. An Islamist party in a historically secular Muslim state, the AKP (the letters by which the party is known) has tied Turkey to a broader slate of regional affairs.

Under the AKP's reign, Turkey has a stated policy goal of engaging its neighbors, in part through stronger trade and diplomatic ties with states like Syria, Iran and Russia, and nonstate players like Hamas and Hezbollah.

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