Turkey tough talk boosts Mideast stature

Treated to a hero's welcome in Egypt this week and flexing his military muscle in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is basking in growing popularity in an Arab world being transformed by revolution and war.

After years of being cold-shouldered by the club of European countries it has sought to join, Ankara has been strengthening its role as regional leader while also unleashing invective against Israel — a move which has rapidly bolstered its standing in the Muslim world.

"Turkey is gaining a surge of popularity in Arab countries by confronting Israel," said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. "But whether this is temporary or longer-lasting remains to be seen."

Basking in the applause of Arab leaders is not cost free. Turkey and Israel have seen their lucrative commercial and military alliance, one of the closest in the region, collapse in the wake of last year's deadly raid by Israeli commandos on a flotilla attempting to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists were killed.

Since then, Ankara has appeared increasingly hard-line, saying the raid — for which Israel has expressed regret but not apologized — could have been a "cause for war." Erdogan said Monday his country had shown "patience" in refraining from taking any action over the incident.

The raid, which Erdogan described as a "bloody massacre," ignited unprecedented anger in Turkey and drove the Jewish state's relations with its most important Muslim ally to their lowest point in six decades. Ankara suspended military ties with Israel this month, expelled top Israeli diplomats and pledged to campaign in support of the Palestinians' statehood bid at the United Nations next week.

Alarmingly, Erdogan also threatened to send warships to patrol the eastern Mediterranean to deter potential aggression against any Gaza-bound aid ships in the future.

The announcement stoked concerns over a possible naval confrontation, forcing the US State Department to bluntly tell Israel and Turkey, both US allies, to "cool it."

The Turkish premier's rhetoric has remained defiant. "Israel cannot do as it pleases in the Mediterranean," he said during a visit to Tunisia Thursday.

Erdogan's popularity in the Arab world skyrocketed when he stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009 after publicly berating Israel's President Shimon Peres over the 2008-2009 Gaza war.

The 57-year-old Erdogan, whose Islamic-rooted party has been in power since 2003 and still enjoys strong support, embarked on a tour of Arab nations this week, visiting Egypt on Monday and Tuesday before heading to Tunisia on Wednesday and the Libyan capital of Tripoli on Thursday.

Just a week before Palestinians are to formally bid for UN recognition as an independent state, Erdogan said he wanted to cross the Egypt-Gaza border to visit Palestinians there — although he eventually dropped that plan, without giving a reason for the change.

"I know that my brothers in Gaza are waiting for me. I too long for Gaza," Erdogan told Al-Jazeera. "Sooner or later, if God allows it, I will go to Gaza."

Perhaps more alarming is the rapidly escalating tension in the eastern Mediterranean over plans by Turkey's longtime rival, Cyprus, to begin exploratory drilling for oil and gas beneath the seabed near Israel in October. With borders in the region still not universally recognized, and the expected deployment of Turkey's warship to the region over the Gaza dispute, the potential for problems has alarmed many.

"The potential risks of a naval confrontation between Turkey and Cyprus are higher than those with Israel," said Hakura, the Chatham House analyst.

Split since 1974 between an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north, Cyprus has been one of the main sticking points in Turkey's bid to join the EU. Turkey does not recognize the island as a sovereign state and strongly objects to the Greek Cypriot search for mineral deposits.

Some argue the saber-rattling over oil exploration could diminish Erdogan's standing on the world stage.

After the flotilla incident, Erdogan was seen as "a sophisticated chess player" who was improving Turkey's position abroad as well as his own standing at home, said Meir Javedanfar, an Israel-based Middle East analyst.

"But this changed after his intervention and threats with regards to the question of the recent gas finds," said Javedanfar. "He is now being viewed as a populist politician who needs confrontation to push his agenda."

Despite the fears sparked by Ankara's muscle-flexing and threats of warships, the actual risk of a naval confrontation with Israel is quite low. Neither Turkey nor Israel are interested in such a dramatic escalation of tensions, which would have profound consequences for regional security and the Middle East peace process.

Moreover, Turkey on Wednesday announced that an early warning radar will be stationed in Turkey's southeast as part of NATO's missile defense system capable of countering ballistic missile threats from neighboring Iran, which sees Israel as an archenemy.

But Turkey standing up to Israel may be the harbinger of a new era in the Middle East that could eventually force Israel to review its actions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government faces isolation and mounting tensions with countries like Egypt, Turkey and even the United States.

"We are in a quiet new territory … I do think that there is a strong sense in Israel of one has to be more careful with developments," said Daniel Levy, a Middle East analyst at the Washington-based New America Foundation.

"After initiating this confrontation with the killing of the nine Turkish activists and refusing to apologize over their deaths, Israel does not want to escalate tensions further with Turkey," Levy said. "Turkey's stature in the region was already high and it has more confidence now when it comes to whether to accept Israel's behavior."

A further escalation of military tension with Turkey could lead to an unwanted threat dimension for Israel. Levy said even though Israel's military has "fantastic hardware," its forces have enough on their hands already.

"Israel does not want to be put to this test," he said.

Ankara's rift with Israel comes as Turkey's yearslong bid to join the European Union has all but faltered.

Turkey, however, rejects claims that it is shifting away from the West. A lynchpin of NATO's southern flank during the Cold War, Ankara is in fact assuming a key role in the US missile defense shield. In September, Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said the US hopes to have the radar deployed there by the end of the year.

Ankara's close military ties with Israel date from more than a decade ago, when the military wanted access to high-tech Israeli arms in its battle against Kurdish separatist guerrillas along Turkey's mountainous southeastern border with Iraq.

Israel provided Turkey with drones which the country uses to gather intelligence on Kurdish rebels, and has also modernized Turkish tanks and warplanes, while Israeli pilots used Turkey's airspace to train.

Earlier this week, Turkey confirmed talks with the US for possible deployment of Predator drones on its soil after the U.S. leaves Iraq. The US currently shares drone surveillance data with Ankara to aid its fight against Kurdish rebels who have bases in Iraq.

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