January 7, 2009 / 9:18 AM / 11 years ago

Clout, politics behind Turkish diplomacy over Gaza

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s frenetic diplomacy to win a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas reflects its new-found clout in the Middle East and is also driven to appease a public opinion infuriated by the mounting death toll of civilians.

Turkey, a predominantly Muslim but secular country with good ties with Israel, has been playing a busy role in trying to bridge Arab division and broker a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

Since Israel began its offensive 12 days ago, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has visited Arab leaders in Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He has kept in touch with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and has sent his foreign minister to the United Nations, where Turkey starts a two-year term as member of the Security Council.

Drawing on Ankara’s unique range of contacts, Turkish officials have also met Hamas leaders in Damascus. Ankara has offered to convey any Hamas ceasefire proposal to the U.N.

As hundreds of thousands of Turks have taken to the streets to condemn the Israeli assault, Erdogan shocked close ally Israel by dubbing its operations “a crime against humanity,” in language that paled even to that used by Arab leaders.

Ankara’s diplomatic offensive is in line with its growing regional diplomatic status and closer ties to the Middle East since Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party took office in 2002.

But it also underlines its delicate balancing act. A NATO member which aspires to join the European Union, Muslim Turkey has positioned itself as a mediator in a tough neighborhood.

“Turkey has leverage in the Middle East because of its growing ties with Arab countries and its relationship with Israel, but it cannot redefine the power game in the region,” said Fadi Hakura, from the London-based Chatham House.

“Turkish diplomacy reflects its growing influence in the region, but it is also driven by domestic reasons. Turks are united in their disapproval toward Israel,” Hakura said.

Turkey, a close U.S. ally, has strong military and strategic ties with Israel. Sales of Israeli military equipment to Turkey is estimated at $100 million annually and the two countries share vital security intelligence.

Despite Erdogan’s harsh criticism of Israel and street protests, analysts do not expect a damage in relations between Israel and Turkey. More than 600 Palestinians have died and more than 2,700 Palestinians have been wounded in the assault.

Speaking to parliament on Tuesday, Erdogan said the strategic importance of Turkish-Israeli relations should overcome disagreements and “emotional exchange of words.”

“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 told parliament.

An official at the Israeli embassy in Ankara, which is ringed by riot police these days, agreed: “As we did it in the past we should overcome this disagreement and will come back to our good relations, like in other crises.”

Leading political commentator Cengiz Candar said Turkey had to play a difficult balancing act in order not to alienate its sometimes conflicting allies.

“Turkey can not be seen as being too close to Israel, but it can not be seen either as being to close to Hamas. It is a difficult diplomacy. The bottom line is Turkey can not risk its relationship with Israel so Erdogan’s rhetoric is just hot air.”

SECULAR AND ISLAMISTS

Turkey’s ruling AK Party and the secularist opposition, which have fought bitter ideological battles over the role of Islam in public life, have been united in condemning Israel and in expressing support for the plight of Palestinian civilians.

Turkish secularist newspapers have run prominent pictures of Palestinian children killed by Israeli raids and of mosques damaged by bombs.

Turkey’s normally pro-Israeli military has privately expressed criticism over Israel’s actions, observers said.

“The crisis in Gaza has united the secularist and the Islamist camp. There is consensus in condemning Israel,” Hakura said.

International efforts are under way to end the fighting and secure a ceasefire deal and Turkey has said it is willing to send troops if an international peacekeeping force is set up.

Additional reporting by Zerin Elci; Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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