A day after defying the West and – along with Brazil – voting against UN sanctions on Iran, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan received a thunderous reception from Arab leaders at the Turkish-Arab Economic Forum that opened Thursday in Istanbul.

Basking in the new stature he has gained in the Arab and Muslim world as a result of his confrontational posture toward Israel, Erdogan questioned Washington’s international dominance, and continued to unleash invective against Israel because of the botched raid on the Turkish-flagged ship last week that led to the death of nine Turks after IDF commandos trying to stop the boat from reaching Gaza were attacked on board.

“Are we going to remain silent over the murder of nine people? We can’t turn a blind eye to this banditry in international waters,” Erdogan told the forum. “This can’t continue as it is.”

And, in an apparent jab at US foreign policy, Erdogan said: “Arms, embargoes and exclusion are not working” – adding that the world was paying a heavy price for such strategies in Iran and Afghanistan.

Israel continued to remain quiet in the face of Erdogan’s unrelenting rhetorical attacks.

One official noted, however, that while Turkey and Brazil voted against the sanctions, Lebanon – the only Arab League member on the UN Security Council – abstained, giving quiet voice to the Arab world’s own concern about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. What makes Lebanon’s vote even more interesting is that Hizbullah, one of Iran’s proxies, is a member of the current Lebanese government.

Israeli officials said that Turkey’s vote against the sanctions should have been anticipated, considering that a few weeks ago it – and Brazil – proposed transferring some of Iran’s low-enriched uranium abroad in order to forestall sanctions.

Erdogan, the official said, is declaring his country’s independent foreign policy and, in the process – along with Brazil – is giving birth to a new non-allied bloc.

“If you want, Erdogan is a new Nasser preaching independence of the Middle East from Western powers,” he said, referring to former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The irony, the official added, is that Erdogan is preaching this independence of the West while his country sits in one of the quintessential Western frameworks: NATO.

Erdogan on Thursday strongly rejected suspicions that he was shifting toward the East and reiterated his nation’s commitment to joining the European Union – while accusing the Europeans of acting in bad faith with a “secret agenda” against Turkey.

“There are those within the European Union who are trying to slow down the negotiating process, those who want to prevent the process. They are trying to curb our enthusiasm,” Erdogan said.

“We are aware of their secret agenda, but we carry on [with reforms] nevertheless.”

France and Germany are the most prominent European countries seeking to block Turkey’s entry into the 27-nation EU. Opponents say Turkey has not moved fast enough on promised reforms, and Turkey’s 1974 occupation of northern Cyprus is a key stumbling block.

Israeli officials say Erdogan’s recent moves, such as Turkey’s vote in the UN and the way he is using the flotilla affair to relentlessly bash Israel, are an indication that he feels entrance into the EU simply won’t happen. So, snubbed by the West, he is turning to the East, and in the process becoming the champion of the Palestinian cause.

According to the officials, while Erdogan’s steps are causing a great deal of consternation in the US, there is little Washington can do – beyond urging restraint and cool heads – because it needs Turkey’s cooperation in a year when it hopes to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Erdogan’s invective at Thursday’s conference was matched by that of Arab league Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who accused Israel of continued “atrocity and assault” in violation of human rights and international law, and praised Turkey for challenging Israel on the raid.

On Thursday, Turkey and 20 Arab nations also issued a joint statement expressing “grave concern and condemnation for the Israeli aggression” on the Gaza-bound ships.

Israel was unfazed by Moussa’s comments, saying that he continuously berates Israel. “This is the man, and that is his style,” one official said.

The official noted that one of the only issues the Arab League, a notoriously fractious body, can ever agree on is its criticism of Israel. Now, the official added, the organization will have to compete with Turkey and Iran as to who is the greater champion of the Palestinian cause.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri also blasted Israel, saying the Middle East was suffering under Israel’s “criminal and barbaric” attitude.

And Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, whose own country’s polices toward Gaza are being challenged by Turkey and its support of Hamas, said, “We support Turkey’s demands not only about the international investigation, but for Israel to apologize.”

He also said Egypt supported “ Turkey’s demand to try those behind these acts.”

During the forum, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon said they would set up a council to create “a zone of free movement of goods and persons” among them, and urged others to join what Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said should not be seen as an alternative to the European Union.

He said Turkey was still eager to join the EU, but that the bloc “cannot and should not restrict [Turkey’s] relations with its neighbors.”

Yet in a clear reference to the Ottoman Empire, Davutoglu said: “Long before the dream of creating the EU existed, we had close trade relations among us in this region.”

The economic forum, set up in 2007, aims to build on a trade volume that, from $13 billion in 2004, soared to $29 billion last year between Turkey and Arab League countries.

Turkey also lifted entry visa requirements for Jordanians, Libyans, Syrians and Lebanese, and would like to extend “the free-trade and visa-free zone” to other countries in the region, Erdogan said.

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