The country that once aspired to a position of regional leadership apparently played no role in Wednesday’s ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel which was negotiated with Egypt and the United States instead. Israel lacks the necessary trust in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey for him to be a credible partner.
Initially silent about the recent violence in Gaza, the Turkish prime minister came out fulminating against Israel’s military actions earlier this week, branding the country a “terrorist state” that was inflicting a “massacre” in the coastal strip. On Tuesday, he argued that Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, was rightfully defending itself against Israel’s attempt at “occupation and ethnic cleansing” even if Israeli settlers and security forces were withdrawn from the territory in 2005.
Erdoğan’s bluster was probably more a sign of his country’s irrelevance in the confrontation between Hamas and Israel than one of Turkey claiming the mantle of regional arbiter. As The New York Times observed on Tuesday, Erdoğan’s “strident anti-Israel posture has been popular among Arabs” but has come at the expense of Turkey’s position in the Middle East, “undermining its ability to play the role of regional power broker by leaving it with little leverage to intercede in the Gaza conflict.”
Turkey’s stature in the Middle East has soared in recent years as it became a vocal defender of Palestinian rights and an outspoken critic of Israel and pursued a foreign policy whose intent was to become a decisive power in regional affairs. But as Gaza and Israel were once again shooting at each other, Turkey found that it had to take a back seat to Egypt on the stage of high diplomacy. The heavy lifting unfolded in Cairo under the inexperienced hand of Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, whose political roots lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist movement that helped found Hamas.
Israeli-Turkish relations, once close, started to unravel after the Gaza war of 2008-2009. Erdoğan upped the ante in May of the following year when the Israeli Navy intercepted six vessels that tried to circumvent its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine activists, among them Turks, were killed when Israeli commandos boarded the ships and were attacked. Turkey was outraged. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç described Israel’s actions as “piracy” and “a dark stain on the history of humanity.” Ahmet Davutoğlu, the foreign minister and architect of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy, compared the incident to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The outrage was successful in putting the necessary distance between Turkey and the West for the former to be accepted as neutral mediator in disputes between regional actors and the United States. It even negotiated a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran that year, with Brazil’s help, although it was rejected as another ploy to delay negotiations by the United States.
American-Turkish relations briefly suffered as Erdoğan seemed to abandon his country’s traditional secular and pro-Western course. President Barack Obama, however, was quick to recognize that a more independent Turkey could work to the United States’ advantage in the region. The Israelis have been less forgiving.
Even if Erdoğan’s criticisms of Israel in recent years may not have been sincere, rather designed to placate the Arab street and bolster his own status as a Sunni Muslim leader, it has soured Israeli-Turkish relations to the extent that, as Michael Koplow points out at Ottomans and Zionists, “Turkey no longer can be the party that facilitates back-channel negotiations between Israel and Hamas.”
Erdoğan’s bile toward Israel is only one manifestation of this and Turkey’s casting aside the role that it had once claimed has led to a loss of influence, rather than greater influence, on larger regional issues.