Acerbic Ankara (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The anti-Israel heat hasn't been coming only from the Turkish street. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is at the forefront of critics of Israel's actions in Gaza. One day in early January, on Istanbul's pedestrian-only Istiklal Boulevard, lined with stylish clothing shops and cafés, several thousand people have gathered to protest Israel's attack on Gaza. Mostly members of trade unions, along with some Islamists, they march up the boulevard, loudly chanting "killer Israel" and waving Palestinian flags. One smiling man proudly holds up a sign that equates the Star of David with a swastika. The day before, the same street had been the scene of a smaller, but still vocal, protest held by members of the Istanbul Bar Association. As the several hundred lawyers marched in a light rain, dressed in their long, black robes, they chanted "Damn you, Israel," finally ending their demonstration in front of a statue of modern Turkey's secularizing founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. "There is a kind of massacre going on," says Ozgur Altin, a trade lawyer. "We wish we could do more, but this protest is what we can do for now." Scenes like this have been playing daily all over Turkey - perhaps Israel's most important ally in the Middle East. Even a basketball game in Ankara between a Turkish team and Israel's Bnei Hasharon had to be called off after shouting protesters stormed the court, forcing the Israeli players to flee to the locker room. "This is the first time the public reaction has been so widespread. It's very intense. There hasn't been such widespread and spontaneous anti-Israel sentiment before," says Sami Kohen, a columnist with the daily Milliyet and a veteran observer of Turkish politics. "It's not just the Islamic circles. It's also the secularists and the nationalists. The protests have been representative of the whole of Turkish society. I don't remember seeing such a public reaction on any other issue before," he adds. The heat hasn't been only coming from the street. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized Israel in many ways significantly more strongly than even most Arab leaders. As one Turkish newspaper, Vatan, dryly noted on its front page, the only other leaders in the Middle East to use language like Erdogan's have been regional firebrands Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Muamar Qadhafi. At a municipal election campaign rally, for example, Erdogan said Israel was "perpetrating inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction. Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents." Erdogan also called Israel's actions a "crime against humanity" and said that he is refusing to take phone calls from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert until Israel stops its Gaza attack. For Turkey, which for the last few years has been trying to establish itself as a new regional mediator and power broker, Israel's attack in Gaza is proving to be both a test and an opportunity. Turkey has been conducting its own shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, and Erdogan in early January visited Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in an effort to renew the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. But the harsh official criticism of Israel and rising popular anger could compromise Ankara's ability to play the role of honest broker, observers say. "We think Turkey has a role in the Middle East. Turkey has contacts with all the countries in the region. They are on speaking terms with everybody. The potential is there for Turkey to help facilitate a solution," says a Western diplomat based in Ankara. "But, during this crisis, Turkey might have a bigger impact if they had a slightly more balanced position and if the prime minister's criticism of Israel had not been so harsh." Erdogan's acerbic reaction to the Israeli operation in Gaza is the result of several factors, reflecting his personality as well as foreign and domestic policy considerations. An unvarnished politician who grew up in a rough-and-tumble Istanbul neighborhood, he is known to be - as one Turkish official put it -"emotional." And, as a leader who cut his political teeth in Turkey's anti-Zionist (and sometimes anti-Semitic) Islamist parties, the Palestinian issue may be an especially emotional one for him. "He comes from the Islamist movement, so he may have some old Islamist reactions. When he is looking at the Palestinian issue, he may have more of an Islamic reaction than in other issues. This is natural," says Rusen Cakir, a political analyst with Turkey's NTV television network and an expert on Erdogan and his liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan's anger also appears to be fueled by a sense that the Gaza attack has been a severe setback for Turkey's efforts to act as a mediator, as in the secret talks between Israel and Syria, which it had hoped might eventually lead to direct peace negotiations. Although the talks were already on hold at the time of the Gaza operation, both Syria and Turkey have announced that they are bowing out of any future meetings for now. More significantly, the Turkish leader appears to feel he was misled by Olmert, who visited Ankara only a few days before Israel launched its attack on Hamas, ostensibly to talk about the suspended talks with Syria. "Erdogan is under the impression that Olmert concealed all the facts and in a way deceived him," says Milliyet's Kohen. "The widespread view in Ankara and in the Turkish press is that Olmert didn't tell him the truth." But some critics are asking whether Erdogan's statements - however heartfelt - have undercut Turkey's capability to deliver on what it insists is the added value it brings to the Middle Eastern table: its ability to serve as a conduit to Israel. "The reactions by the prime minister at the start of the operation have weakened a very important trump card in his hand," political analyst Cengiz Candar said on NTV, a Turkish news network."The war in Gaza has... battered the country's political influence," he also said. In Israel, Erdogan's words were met with dismay. "There's a lot of anger in Israel over what Erdogan said," says Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. "Turkey needs to understand that... for Israel, Hamas is a red flag; it's seen as a terrorist organization that wants to destroy it." Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.