ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sacrificed any possibility of Turkey playing a mediation role in Gaza in favor of seeking to impress voters ahead of presidential polls with the toughest ever anti-Israeli rhetoric from a Turkish leader.
Before the rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) over a decade ago, NATO member Turkey was Israel’s key ally in the Islamic world, a policy enthusiastically cheered by the United States.
Erdogan has long presented himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause and leader of the entire Sunni Muslim world. But his anti-Israel rhetoric has reached new heights in the Gaza conflict, with comments aimed at causing the maximum offense in the Jewish state by comparing its strategy in Gaza to the actions of Nazi Germany.
Erdogan has accused Israel of committing “genocide” in Gaza and has also compared the mentality of some elements in Israeli society to that of Adolf Hitler, comments that enraged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Turkey’s usually soft-spoken Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also launched his own incendiary attack against Israel over the weekend, saying Turkey had no reason to be impartial.
“Turkey is by no means impartial and can have no supporting role in the mediation efforts,” Cengiz Aktar, professor of political science at the Istanbul Policy Center, told AFP.
One eye on August polls
Erdogan, who is now in the throes of campaigning for presidential elections on August 10 that he is widely expected to win, has whipped up the crowds at mass rallies with his anti-Israeli rhetoric.
With Turkish public opinion overwhelmingly hostile to Israel’s policies, his diatribes can only help him at the polls.
“This scores good electoral points for him. A pro-Israeli or pro-Jewish approach would never benefit a politician who still tries to portray himself as the leader of the Sunni world,” said Aktar.
In the aftermath of angry pro-Palestinian protests in Ankara where Turkish protesters climbed onto the walls of the Israeli envoy’s residence, Israel pulled most of its staff from the country and denounced Turkey’s failure to protect its missions.
“With the Turkish leadership’s anti-Israel rhetoric, Turkey has now lost nearly all of its ability to have political influence in Israel,” said Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group.
The one supporting role that Turkey could play is that of mediating between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, said Pope.
Turkey’s ties with allies fray
Turkey is already reaping the diplomatic cost of Erdogan’s broadsides. A country that once boasted of having good relations with all major powers is now looking increasingly isolated with several traditional alliances under heavy strain.
Erdogan appears happy to pick a fight with Washington with the US State Department branding his comments on Israel “offensive and wrong” but the prime minister hitting back by saying the United States needed to engage in “self-criticism.”
The nominee for the new US ambassador to Ankara, John Bass, acknowledged that Turkey was “drifting” to authoritarianism under Erdogan.
Ties with not only Egypt but also Saudi Arabia have frayed after the Riyadh-backed coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood presidency in Cairo. Only ties with Qatar seem to be flourishing.
Erdogan has himself made clear that the process of normalization of relations between Turkey and Israel — downgraded after the deadly storming by Israeli commandos of a Turkish activist ship off Gaza in 2010 — is now at an end.
Yet both Turkey and Israel have a mutual interest in keeping relations and some analysts speculate that behind closed doors cooperation between security services is continuing.
Trade is far from insignificant — the total trade volume between the two countries rose to $5 billion (3.7 billion euros) in 2013, compared to $3.4 billion in 2008.
“Behind closed-doors, I still believe that efforts are underway to normalize the relations. They can gain momentum as early as after the elections,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan of the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.