FOR YEARS, THERE HAS BEEN A GENTLEMAN’S agreement between Jerusalem and Ankara: Don’t bug us about our human-rights track record in dealing with the Palestinians and we won’t bug you about yours on the Kurds.But lately, the Middle East might have become too rough and unpredictable a neighborhood for gentlemanly behavior. It might be that Israel’s record vis-à-vis the Palestinians was becoming too egregious to ignore. And it might be that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in 2003 entered the premier’s office feeling significantly less fond of Turkey’s tight ties with Israel than his predecessors, had plans that didn’t include the Jewish state on his list of most-valuable players.Most likely, it is a combination of all of these and more.Still, Erdogan is taking his dislike of Israeli policy and his disappointment with Israeli leaders a few decibels higher than anyone expected. Following the leak of the UN’s Palmer Report on the May 2010 flotilla debacle, after which Prime Minister Netanyahu made it clear that he would not apologize for the killing by Israeli forces of Turks on board the Mavi Marmara, Erdogan expelled Israel’s ambassador to Ankara and suspended military cooperation. The latter is significant because it confirms that the Turkish military, once considered the final arbiter on what is good for the almighty devlet (state), is no longer calling the shots when it comes to strategy and security, much to the chagrin of the IDF.Erdogan says he will continue to seek justice for the nine Turks, will challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza in the International Court of Justice, and may even send Turkish military ships to the eastern Mediterranean – a not-so-thinly veiled suggestion that he is ready to confront Israel with more than words.In classic Erdogan style, a style that makes some Turks smile and others shudder, he has been shooting from the hip, showing little interest in repairing relations with Israel anytime soon.To a Cairo television station during his recent visit to Egypt: “Israel is the West’s spoiled child.” To the Arab League: “Israel must pay the price for the crimes it committed.”And to reporters in Kayseri, the Turkish heartland, in response to criticism lodged by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), who mused that he would kiss Erdogan’s forehead if he would dare sail with one of the Gaza-bound ships: “We would never let our clean foreheads touch your cursed mouth and lips. We, in any case, do not need your kisses.Save your kisses for the Israelis.”THE NASTINESS EMBEDDED IN THAT COMMENT SHEDS a few beams of light on the man Erdogan is. He is famously mercurial and quick-tempered, and there are more moderate forces within his Justice and Development Party (AKP) who had hoped that as he matured as a leader, he would become more politic. The sharpness of his response to his critics in the opposition – painting them as Israel-lovers – shows that he is a man for whom politics is about friends and enemies, not about building consensus.But couldn’t the same often be said about Netanyahu? Couldn’t he have just avoided all of this by biting the bullet and apologizing? It would have helped, but it’s not so clear that it would have redirected Erdogan’s GPS, which has been directed away from Israel for some time.“Every Turk believes that Israel should not have attacked that ship in international waters, and that Israel should take responsibility and therefore apologize. But now the prime minister has added to the list, to our surprise, the entire blockade of Gaza,” Ilter Turan, a political scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University who has written extensively about the Israel-Turkey relationship, tells The Report.“There isn’t an intensity of public feeling that would explain his passion for liberating Gaza,” Turan says. “Though Turks would like to receive an apology and restitution, there are those in other corners of Turkish society, who believe that perhaps Turkey shouldn’t get embroiled in the Middle East conflict in this way. But people are reluctant to challenge a position that the prime minister is adamant about. He has full control of his party, and the opposition is not particularly effective.”In Erdogan’s worldview, Israel has burned him several times. It surprised him and invaded Gaza in late 2008, when he thought he was in the middle of brokering a deal between Jerusalem and Damascus over the Golan. It leaked the UN’s Palmer Report on the flotilla raid – or at least so he believes – because the findings seemed to exonerate Israel and condone its policy on Gaza. Most fundamentally, says Turan, Erdogan does not see in Netanyahu or any other Israeli leader any sincerity about peacemaking.“Erdogan already thinks Israel is not interested in peace,” Turan explains. “My hunch is that he has a vision of the Middle East in which Turkey exercises a dominant role in the economic domain, and Israel is an impediment to that. If restitution and apology demands were met and the Gaza blockade were to be removed, maybe these tensions would not come up in this intensity.”In short, however, the tensions would still be there.ICOVERED THE ELECTORAL RISE OF THE AK PARTY while based in Turkey in 2002-03. This gave me the opportunity to travel to Kayseri and other towns in Central Anatolia – the nation’s breadbasket and the equivalent of the American Midwest – and to meet real, kind, salt-of-the-earth Turks who were eagerly voting Erdogan.They were doing so not out of Islamic fundamentalism – and certainly not out of anti-Semitism – but because of their perception that his was an honest-to-goodness party of clean hands.Still, their success sent shivers down the spines of my secular friends, who feared the worst and wondered aloud if they should prepare to trade in their bikinis for hijabs. But it was the pundits who predicted gradual change – and not an Islamic Revolution – who ultimately proved to be correct.It’s taken eight years of Erdogan for the relationship with Israel to unravel – an unraveling that Israel has contributed to with its diplomatic blunders, such as in the ill-conceived knuckle-rapping Deputy Premier Danny Ayalon gave the Turkish ambassador in January 2010, in response to an anti-Israeli drama on Turkish TV.But Erdogan has also rankled other relationships that were presumed to be key to his doctrine of getting closer to his Arab and Islamic neighbors, whom he thinks previous governments undervalued in favor of kowtowing to Israel and the US.At the height of the uprising in Syria, for example, he called for President Bashar al-Assad to resign. Visiting Libya on September 16, he predicted the regime would not survive. “Those in Syria who inflict repression on the people will not be able to stand on their feet because oppression and prosperity cannot exist together,” he told a cheering crowd in Tripoli, which responded with chants of “Turkey! Turkey!” Of late, Erdogan has also incensed his allies in Iran by agreeing in early September to let NATO deploy anti-missile radars near the Turkish-Iranian border.This is not the behavior of someone said to be currying favor with hard-line Islamic regimes, particularly the region’s key non-Arab one.TO ERDOGAN’S CRITICS, THE MAN IS A LIVEWIRE, A capricious force of nature capable of shattering carefully woven alliances without warning. To his admirers – and to his own sense of self, from what we can gather – he is a man of principles who votes with his conscience, not with expedience.Of course, that approach is winning hearts and minds across the Arab world. In the autumn following the Arab Spring, Erdogan’s is the face that protesters want on posters and T-shirts. He engages with the West but also challenges it, a fine line few others have managed to walk. And he is doing all of this while the Turkish economy is thriving, with over 6 percent growth expected for 2011. As part of his in-person thumbs-up to the newly dicatatorless countries of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, he has brought along a huge entourage of businessmen and is using the opportunity to cement or re-establish business ties.During his trip, Erdogan signed agreements with Egypt to cooperate on various issues and pledged to raise trade volume between the two countries from $3.7 billion to $10 billion in the next four years. Turkey also plans to resume work on six Libyan oil wells by October 1, and while there, Erdogan also offered to build a new parliament and repair schools, police stations and other public buildings, the Abu Dhabi paper “The National” reported. It is, notes Turan, the natural next step for Erdogan. “The Turkish government wants to be a part of this change, to have good relations with these emerging systems, and to have an input in how things are shaped, especially now that Turkey perceives itself as a regional leading country.”That, after all, was always Erdogan’s dream: to restore Turkey to its rightful place as a regional powerhouse. The Ottoman Empire will never again be, and Erdogan is too savvy to think otherwise.But in the 21st century, we may see the rise of a borderless empire, a virtual reality of political and economic ties that won’t require a Turkish flag flying overhead for its presence to be felt.