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Claude Salhani

Claude Salhani

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Is Turkey Shifting Alliances?

For the last several decades it was generally assumed that Israel was the United States’ staunchest ally in the Greater Middle East. But when former Nebraskan Republican Senator Chuck Hagel introduced Turkey’s prime minister in Washington last Monday, Hagel began his speech by saying Turkey was the United States’ most important ally in the region.

And for the last several decades it was also assumed that Turkey was Israel’s only ally in the Middle East. But when he took the podium, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, lambasted the behavior of the Jewish state for its actions during the war against the Hamas-led resistance in Gaza last December. Additionally, the Turkish prime minister sharply criticized Israel for possessing nuclear weapons while calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear program.

The Turkish prime minister said that Iran producing nuclear weapons "is not just a threat for the region, but for the entire globe. "But, said Erdogan, "if a country possesses nuclear weapons, it cannot ask others to give them up."

Erdogan, who had a very public argument with Israeli President Shimon Peres last February during a televised debate held on the fringes of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, called Israel’s actions in the Gaza war “heavy handed.”

Said Erdogan: “Israel claims missiles are fired at its territory and that three to five people are killed. But when Israel retaliates, 3,000 to 5,000 people are killed by Israeli phosphorous bombs.”

If Erdogan’s sudden shift in foreign policy surprises anyone, it really shouldn’t. The possibility of Turkey shifting alliances, as it now seems to be in the process of doing, can easily be explained as a kneejerk reaction to the continuing saga of Turkey’s long-standing application for admission into the European Union.

Turkey feels it has met all the requirements put forward by the EU, but that Brussels keeps moving the goal posts while the game is underway. Erdogan in fact compared the EU’s attitude towards Turkey to “changing the rules for the quarterback in a football game in the 36th minute.”

"This is a situation where we clearly have double standards," said Erdogan, much to the displeasure of Israeli diplomats and supporters of the Jewish state present in the audience. The prime minister’s statements made in Washington even upset many Turks who see this shift in Kemalist policy as a dangerous step for Turkey. A policy that if pursued would represent a clean break of the Kemalist philosophy adopted by the new secularist republic after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the close of WWI.

The vision of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the architect of modern day Turkey, was to distance the nation from its Ottoman past, the Middle East and the Arab/Muslim world by aligning it more with Europe. Indeed, Turkey’s battle to gain admittance into the European Union has been an uphill battle for the good part of a decade and a half.

“Turkey has been in Limbo during the past 15 years,” said the Turkish prime minister.

With that in mind, therefore, it should really come as no surprise to anyone – least of all the European countries such as France, Austria and Germany, who have long opposed Turkey’s entry into the EU – to see Turkey begin to gradually re-align its foreign policy in favor of the Arab and Muslim East. At least in this part of the world Turkey is regarded as a regional powerhouse and a force to be reckoned with, as opposed to the West where many Turks are fed up of being treated as the poor man trying to gain entry into an elite club.

Still, despite these two “verbal bombs” dropped by the Turkish prime minister, Erdogan insisted that Turkey would continue to play the role of mediator, trying to find common ground between Israel and the Palestinians on the one hand and between Israel and Syria on the other. That role now will be very difficult to carry out given the pro-Arab stance adopted by the Turkish prime minister.

Erdogan insisted that “there was no change in the axis of his country's foreign policy.”

But given the content of two speeches recently delivered in Washington Erdogan will have a hard time convincing the Israelis.

Erdogan’s speech was no doubt a move designed to demonstrate to his followers back home his political independence vis-à-vis Washington, yet at the same time meant to send a message to the West that Turkey’s patience is running out.

While the prime minister's discourse on Israel's actions in the Palestinian territories was received with stupor by Israeli diplomats, Arab diplomats on the other hand were more than pleased.

"He said what Arabs leaders should be saying but don't dare say," an Arab diplomat who asked not to be identified told this reporter that the Turkish prime minister's speech was "courageous."

In what was clearly another jab at Israel Erdogan called for a "legitimate order" in the Middle East, saying that "forcing paranoia based on the fear of the other does not work.

“We will not be able to solve our problems through military interventions and sheer power," said Erdogan, adding that the solution to the problem should come through diplomacy.

“Everyone should look in the mirror,” said Erdogan, referring to Israel’s policy of refusing to discus the issue. Indeed, while it is no secret that Israel has long possessed a nuclear arsenal the country’s leadership has never allowed observers from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watch dog arm of the United Nations.

By. Claude Salhani

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