Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan has been going around offering his services as mediator in one conflict after another. His record is far from happy and when rebuffed, he lashes back.
This week, Erdogan greeted the designation of Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu as Israel's next prime minister by commented to the London Guardian newspaper in deeply pained tones that he could not be expected to continue pushing Hamas to accepting Israel when Netanyahu doesn't accept the creation of a Palestinian state.
“Is Israel right now accepting Palestine?” the Turkish premier asked – and answered his own question: “They are still not accepting them. But it is expected of the Palestinian people to accept Israel. Now go and ask Mr. Netanyahu if he accepts Palestine.”
As he sounded off, a gathering was taking place in Istanbul of Turkish Hamas and Hizballah Islamists and groups of radical academics and intellectuals. They were plotting a campaign for recruiting young Turks to fight Israel in the ranks of Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The Turkish police and intelligence authorities were fully aware of the meeting but did not interfere. This would have been unthinkable just a year ago, when Ankara and Jerusalem were still close friends.
By now, it is clear that the anti-Israeli diatribe Erdogan delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month and his verbal clash with Israel's president Shimon Peres were part of a stunt. The Turkish prime minister was keen on drumming up popular acclaim at home, but he was also in the middle of a drive for top spot in the radical Muslim-Arab camp at war with Israel.
Wooing the radicals at Davos
In this capacity, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources report, he aimed to push Egypt and Saudi Arabia off their perches as the foremost Muslim-Arab powers.
To this end, Erdogan began driving Ankara's relations with Cairo and Riyadh – and not only with Israel – into the ground. In the early days of Israel's three-week campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip six weeks ago, the Turkish prime minister went to Cairo and Riyadh to offer his services as intermediary between the warring parties.
Saudi King Abdullah and, even more emphatically, president Hosni Mubarak, advised him none to gently to butt out; they had the conflict in hand.
Ever touchy on a point of honor, Erdogan decided to get his own back, while also making himself heard on the Gaza war in places where it counted. He grabbed headlines by accusing Israel of war crimes against the Palestinians. He then went to Davos to collect kudos from the radical circles he is wooing at the expense of the rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The Muslim Brotherhood's website quoted an Egyptian writer Fahmi Howeidi who said: “Erdogan exposed Amr Moussa [the Arab League's Egyptian secretary], who should have walked out of the session [at Davos] as well…”
Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora sent him a thank-you message for his “defense of the Palestinians… in the spirit of fraternity” at Davos.
A lesson about living in glass houses and throwing stones
But the Turkish leader's adversity towards Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel has also exposed the vulnerabilities of his own government and its policies.
1. By categorizing Israel's bombing raids on Hamas in Gaza as war crimes, he laid his government' military operations on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border against the Kurdish PKK and PAJAK resistance movements wide open.
An Israeli major general, Avi Mizrahi, commander of the IDF's ground forces, hit that sensitive nerve last week when he said that instead of judging Israel, Erdogan should have “looked in the mirror” before slamming president Shimon Peres last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
He said Turkey was in no position to criticize Israel's actions in the Palestinian territories when it stations troops in northern Cyprus. He also accused Turkey of repressing its Kurdish minority and massacring Armenians during World War I.
Israel's caretaker prime minister Ehud Olmert and chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi hastened to apologize for the general's remarks, saying that Mizrahi did not reflect official Israeli policy.
But its source was well noted in Ankara: The general has often been invited to share with Turkish commanders IDF tactics for combating the Kurdish fighters mounting raids from bases in Iraq. Israel has also loaned the Turkish army sophisticated drones for gathering intelligence on PKK movements across the border.
The Ottoman Empire does not inspire fond memories
2. Erdogan's decision to champion the cause of Palestinian independence raised questions about the morality of sending the Turkish army to crush Kurdish separatists demanding independence – or at least autonomy – for a minority which accounts for at least one-fifth of the Turkish population.
3. While aspiring to lead the Sunni Muslim Arab camp, Erdogan's armed forces are killing the mostly Sunni Muslim Kurds.
In recent weeks, as his popularity in Arab radical circles began to cool, the Turkish prime minister realized that his words were often incompatible with his actions.
And so he reacted with some overdue corrections.
The Kurdish citizens in Diyarbakir at the heart of the Turkish Kurdish separatist movement could hardly believe their ears when the prime minister from Ankara praised them as “first-class citizens.”
He even admitted that Turkey's Kurds had equal rights with other citizens and pledged that his ruling AKK party would continue to fight for those rights – words they had not heard for 60 years or more.
4. Finally, the Turkish premier faced a serious challenge to his credibility as an effective regional statesman. Some columnists at home and in the West suggested he was moved to seek the spotlight by a craving for the glories of the old Ottoman Empire.
The trouble with that dream is that the Arab peoples do not mark the Ottoman period of their histories as benign. In fact, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria found glory and independence only after the Turkish pashas and troops disappeared from their lands and the empire expired.
The Ottoman Empire governed by Islamic traditions and culture lasted six centuries. Constantinople (Istanbul) was the center of interaction between the East and the West. At its peak, the Ottomans ruled most of the Middle East, North Africa, parts of Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan as well as southern Europe,
The real end of Ottoman civilization came with the secularization of Turkey in the 1920s along European models of government.
This process, many Turks fear, the current pro-Islamic rulers may want to reverse. Of late, the army, the traditional guardians of Turkey's secular democracy, has been penetrated by Muslim elements.
Washington and Tehran also dispensed with Erdogan's services
As a realistic politician, Erdogan understands how hard it is to turn the clock back, so he moved sideways. Reacting to the snubs administered by Cairo, Riyadh and the Gulf emirates, he about-turned to Tehran in the hope of better luck from the Islamic Republic and its clients – Syria, the Lebanese Hizballah and Palestinian Hamas.
But here too he was disappointed.
On Feb. 24, he told the Guardian that, when George W. Bush was still in office, Tehran had asked for his help to bridge its 30-year old dispute with the US and perhaps even restore diplomatic ties. He passed the message on to the White House at the time and was considering raising the matter with Barack Obama.
Asked if Turkey knew how to heal the mistrust between Washington and Tehran, Erdogan replied: “Iran does want Turkey to play this role… But I told this to President Bush myself.”
Last year, Ankara initiated a series of indirect conversations between representatives of Israel and Iran's senior ally, Syria. Erdogan had hoped that success in reconciling the two implacable foes would showcase his skills as mediator and get him invited to arbitrate in the premier league game between the US and Iran.
But again he was rebuffed.
The Israel-Syrian track petered out and no invitations were forthcoming from Washington or Tehran.
Tehran will be satisfied with no less than an Obama-Ahmadinejad summit
Iran dispensed with Erdogan's services for the following reasons outlined by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources:
One: Since mid-2008, Tehran has held to the strict principle that any talks with the Americans must take place at the highest level. In other words Washington must send secretary of state Hillary Clinton over and Tehran reciprocate with foreign minister Manouchehr Moutaki – but only as aides to prepare the ground for a summit conference.
Two: The Iranians count a summit as a meeting between Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They discount the American demand (first revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 383 on Feb. 6) to bring on supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Tehran will not make him available until the Obama-Ahmadinejad track runs its course and is crowned with success.
This scenario is too delicate and complex for Iran to make way for an outsider like the Turkish premier.
Three: Iran is perfectly aware of Erdogan's ambition to match Iran step by step on the road to a nuclear bomb.
(See DNW 377 of Dec. 26, 2008: If Iran Can, So Can We).
Four: Tehran is keeping a weather eye cocked on the surreptitious moves pursued by Erdogan's partner, Turkish president Abdullah Gul.
He is running a separate Turkish drive to the East, directed at planting a stake in the Caucasian and Caspian republics by building close ties with Moscow and the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
This drive will be explored in a separate item in this issue.