As Israel’s only ally in the region, increasingly vocal criticism from Ankara and the streets of Turkey about the operations in Gaza raises questions about the future of Turkish-Israeli relations. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had refused to talk to Israeli leaders before a ceasefire was reached. Nonetheless, in response to growing calls from across the political spectrum for breaking off ties with Israel or imposing sanctions, Erdogan said that this was out of question, stressing that Turkey could not afford the political consequences of such a decision (Anadolu Ajansi, January 17).
Likewise, on a live TV show Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan ruled out severing diplomatic relations with Israel, because such a populist move would not serve regional stability and would undermine Turkey’s mediation attempts by closing channels of communication. Nonetheless, Babacan confirmed earlier press reports that he had refused to meet Israeli Foreign Minister "Tzipi" Livni, who wanted to visit Ankara. Babacan told Livni on the phone that unless she wanted to discuss conditions for a ceasefire, "it did not make sense to pay a good-intentions visit" (www.ntvmsnbc.com, January 16). Earlier, Babacan had indirectly criticized American support for Israel, by saying, "Israel will continue its operations as long as it gets a green light from some countries" (www.kanaldhaner.com, January 15).
Erdogan uses every opportunity to express his criticism of Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the silence of the international community. He has addressed large public gatherings, such as party meetings preceding municipal elections, which have been important forums for airing his views on Gaza. During a party congress, for instance, he questioned the silence of the international community over Israel’s disregard of numerous UN Security Council resolutions (www.cnnturk.com, January 16). Similarly, when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Ankara on Friday, Erdogan told him that Turkey had expected the UN to be more proactive (Star, January 17).
Before his departure to Brussels on Sunday, Erdogan called on the Western leaders to demonstrate a resolute attitude toward Israel. Criticizing international efforts to reach a settlement by excluding Hamas from the negotiation table, Erdogan maintained that "Hamas is a party that won elections. The West, which has failed to respect Hamas’s democratic openings, is responsible for the current situation" (Cihan Haber Ajansi, January 18).
When addressing the representatives of the Turkish community in Brussels, the developments in Gaza and Turkish diplomatic efforts again occupied a central place. Although he found Israel’s unilateral declaration of a ceasefire important, he said that the continuing presence of Israeli forces in Gaza was an issue of concern and asked Israel to give assurances that it would allow uninterrupted humanitarian aid. Referring to Hamas’s decision to halt its military activities, Erdogan maintained that the new situation approximated what he had sought to achieve through his earlier diplomatic initiatives (www.ntvmsnbc.com, January 18).
Erdogan’s claim of credit for Turkey’s contributions to regional diplomacy is not baseless. Despite its critical tone toward Israel, Ankara has maintained ties with both parties to the conflict, hoping to find a peaceful solution. In addition to its own diplomatic efforts (EDM, January 5), Turkey has supported the Egyptian plan of January 6, which was also backed by France and called for an end to violence first, followed by talks on allowing access into Gaza and ensuring the security of Gaza’s borders.
In the run up to Sunday’s Sharm el-Sheikh summit, co-hosted by Egypt and France, a Turkish delegation led by Ahmet Davutoglu shuttled between Cairo and Damascus meeting with Hamas leaders in Syria in an effort to mediate between the parties. On Friday, Turkey had offered the parties its own draft agreement for a ceasefire, which Babacan called a "solid offer." On Saturday the Turkish delegation told reporters that parties were close to a mutual understanding on the terms of a ceasefire. On Sunday Israel and then Hamas declared a ceasefire (Anadolu Ajansi, January 17).
President Abdullah Gul represented Turkey at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, which was also attended by leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Germany, Spain, Britain, Italy, and the Czech Republic, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Secretaries General of the UN and Arab League. Gul welcomed the conclusions of the summit but asked Israel to pull out from Gaza entirely and to lift the embargo. He also emphasized the need to reach reconciliation between Palestinian factions for a sustainable peace in the region, which Turkey had advocated since the beginning of the crisis (Hurriyet, January 19).
Although following the summit the European leaders went to Israel to a dinner hosted by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Gul returned to Ankara. Turkish reporters speculated that Gul had not been on the invitation list and interpreted this as Israel’s grave disrespect toward Turkey (www.stargundem.com, January 18). Gul, however, dismissed these claims and maintained that the European leaders went to Israel to discuss the details of an earlier deal between Israel and the United States, which would regulate American involvement in monitoring the border crossings between Gaza and Egypt (www.ntvmsnbc.com.tr, January 18).
Since the beginning of the crisis, Turkey has said that it was ready to send troops to the region as part of an international force to monitor either a ceasefire or patrol the border between Gaza and Egypt in order to allay Israel’s concerns about weapons smuggling. Gul told reporters that there had been no decision to for such an international force in Sharm el-Sheikh. As a matter of fact, specific arrangements for monitoring weapons traffic remained unresolved at the summit, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledging that the European leaders would provide Egypt and Israel with the necessary technical, military, and naval assistance.
Gul also emphasized that Turkish-Israeli relations would continue, although Turkey would not hesitate to criticize Israel’s blatant human rights violations, which outraged the entire Turkish population. He maintained that such misguided policies were the greatest threat to Israel’s own security and noted that the Palestinian problem was the source of many problems throughout the world. He asked the incoming Obama administration to contribute to the peace process, noting that "the just and determined involvement of the United States will go a long way toward a long-term resolution of the problem" (ANKA, January 18).
Turkey’s policy toward the Israeli invasion of Gaza continues to reverberate in its external relations. Whereas Erdogan is praised by people in Muslim countries (EDM, January 15), Ankara is criticized by Western observers who view the recent developments as potentially damaging to Turkey’s relations with the West. According to Dr. Ian Lesser, Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, although Turkey’s initiatives are worthy of praise, by departing from "the transatlantic consensus on how to deal with Hamas," Turkey "loses credibility as an interlocutor" (Hurriyet Daily News, January 18).