At a conference in Istanbul, Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan spoke on Monday about the lead role he envisions Turkey taking in the Middle East.
“It is imperative to establish a new global order,” Erdogan said at the istanbul forum, a 2 day conference which brought policy makers and analysts from both the Middle East and the West to discuss regional issues.
“Turkey has a major role to play in the region,” said Erdogan. His soaring rhetoric, which vacillated between that of peacemaker and populist, appeared to place Turkey at the head of a new global power structure as “a shining star of this world.”
Responding to coverage of the diplomatic fraying between his country and Israel in recent months, Erdogan parried that “not everyone" in the region "has to feel trust for us.” This contrasts with his government's stated goal of acting as honest broker and once again hosting talks between Israel and Syria. Earlier talks broke down with the start of the 2008 Israel-Gaza War.
Relations between Turkey and Israel, which had always been strong, have begun to deteriorate. In the wake of the 2008 assault on Gaza, Turkey became an outspoken critic of Israel, particularly over the high number of civilian casualties which occurred during the conflict. In January, Erdogan walked out of a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland after a dispute with Israeli President Shimon Peres over the Gaza War. Tensions have risen in recent days following the cancellation of a joint NATO military operation, where Turkey reportedly had chosen to exclude Israel, prompting the U.S and other NATO members to withdraw. Despite official statements from all sides that the cancellation was due to technical problems, both Prime Minister Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have suggested in subsequent press conferences that the cancellation was in response to disagreements over the 2008 Gaza assault.
Congressman Robert Wexler, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Europe and an outspoken supporter of Israel, responded directly to the Prime Minister’s foreign policy program in a panel discussion at the istanbul forum.
“Why is it that warmer relations with Syria, why is it the new relationship with Iran, why is it that a more prominent Turkey has to, it seems, come at the expense of Turkey’s relationship with Israel?” said Wexler.
Ibrahim Kalin, foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Erdogan, countered Wexler in the panel and claimed that there was no black and white alignment into which Turkish foreign policy must fall. He went on to say that “you cannot have security of Israel at the expense of the security of Palestinians.”
Tension at the forum seemed to crescendo when Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of the Knesset, viciously attacked President Obama’s approach to Middle East Peace, stating that “the main obstacle for any settlement in the Middle East is the American Policy,” citing Obama’s commitment to “unbreakable” relations between America and Israel, regardless of changes in Israeli policy.
The conference was sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, Stratim, and SETA (The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research) whose contributors often include members of Turkey's governing AK party.
Today, the American and Israeli militaries began joint exercises of the annual Juniper Cobra. This year, it is reported that the exercises will simulate possible missile attacks on Israel, presumably as a response to fears of Iranian nuclear ambitions. Turkey currently enjoys warm relations with Iran.