'Erdogan's stint as mediator is over'

Gov't official: Turkish PM "won't be accepted as an honest broker by Israel" after recent Gaza comments.

Turkey's role in mediating the Israeli-Arab conflict has been compromised by its leader's repeated censure of Israel's recent war in the Gaza Strip, a government official said Monday. Turkey, a secular country ruled by an Islamic-oriented party, had long been Israel's best friend in the Muslim world. The two countries have wide-ranging military, economic and strategic ties, and last year Ankara hosted months of indirect talks between Israel and Syria after an eight-year breakdown. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been especially vocal in his criticism of Operation Cast Lead, and last week, he stormed out of a high-profile world forum where he confronted Israel's president over Palestinian civilian casualties. Erdogan's outbursts thrust Turkey into the role of championing Hamas. In Gaza, Erdogan was hailed as a hero, but Israel doesn't see him in that light. "He won't mediate anything any more," the government official said. "His stint as mediator between Israel and the Arabs is over, that's for sure. He won't be accepted as an honest broker by Israel at all." The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to disclose Israeli policy. He said no official decision had to be taken, but that Israeli leaders spoke about Erdogan in such a way that made it clear they did not have faith in him as a mediator. Any Israel discontent is directed at Erdogan personally, and should not be misconstrued as a rupture with Turkey, whose cooperation Israel values, he added. A spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been overseeing the talks, had no comment. "We attach importance to our relations with Israel and we want to preserve those relations," Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek told a news conference on Monday. "Turkey is not targeting Israel or its people. We have been expressing concern over the killing of civilians and human tragedy in Gaza." Erdogan's government mediated four rounds of indirect talks between Syria and Israel this year, but the discussions made no significant headway. Syria suspended the talks after Israel launched its war in Gaza. Israel is electing a new parliament next week and even without Erdogan's criticisms, it was not clear whether the new government would pursue Turkish mediation on the Syrian track. Tens of thousands of Turks protested against Gaza operation, and many urged their government to sever ties with Israel. This outpouring of grassroots anger put Erdogan under increasing pressure to take a tough stand against the Israelis. He predicted the operation would bring a "curse." And last week, at the World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland, attended by the world's political and business elite, he stormed off a stage he shared with President Shimon Peres, saying, "You kill people." Turkish-Israeli ties have been tested in the past by earlier Israeli attacks on Palestinians but strong security interests helped to mend fences. Turkey and Israel grew close in the mid-1990s, their alliance based on mutual fears of Iran and Syria. Israel has supplied hundreds of millions of dollars of military hardware to Turkey over the years, the two countries conduct joint naval exercises and the Israeli air force trains over Turkish airspace. But since Erdogan's government came to power in 2003, it has also forged closer ties to Iran and Hamas. Turkey believes Hamas must play a key role in the Palestinian territories. Defense officials have been discussing the tensions caused by Erdogan's comments but do not want the diplomatic flap to hurt military ties, Israeli defense officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not at liberty to disclose the substance of confidential discussions. The Turkish military, which suspects Erdogan's government wants to erode Turkish secularism, indicated that it, too, was interested in preserving the two countries' ties. "The rule is to act according to national interests in bilateral military relations with all countries," Brig. Gen. Metin Gurak, the military spokesman, said Friday when asked if military ties might be cut.