A few days before the first Israeli air assault on Hamas strongholds in Gaza on 27 December 2008, a meeting in Ankara was held between Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Israeli counterpart Ehud Olmert. The visit appeared to focus on reviewing progress in the previously secret talks between Israel and Syria that had been ongoing for more than a year under Turkey's mediation (see Carsten Wieland, "The Syria-Israel talks: old themes, new setting", 27 May 2008)Mustafa Kibaroglu is an assistant professor in the department of international relations at Bilkent University, Ankara. This article, with slight editorial variations, was published in bitterlemons.org Among openDemocracy's articles on the Gaza conflict of 2008-09:
Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)
Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)
Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)
Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)
Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)
Mary Robinson, "A crisis of dignity in Gaza" (13 January 2009)
Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)
Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)
Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)
Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)
Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)
Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)
Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)
Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)
Turkey's active role in this dispute between two bitter regional rivals is part of a wider and radical shift in its diplomatic posture. For decades, Turkish governments had opted to stay out of the Arab-Israel conflict. The arrival in power of the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) in November 2002 was the spark for a dramatic change in Turkey's traditional stance toward the region. Turkey's foreign minister Ali Babacan has indicated that the Turkish side is content with progress being made in the Syria-Israel discussions, though these were suspended in the first days of the Israeli attacks. This reflects the way that Gaza conflict has imposed domestic strains on Turkey's relationship with Israel whose effect is yet to be seen.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself has faced a political backlash from Israel's operation, which he condemned. But his meeting with Ehud Olmert became a contested topic; opposition leaders in Turkey accused the Turkish prime minister of having cut a secret deal with his Israeli counterpart over the forthcoming assault.
The accusation - immediately denied by Erdogan - drew on comments made by the Israeli ambassador to Ankara, Gabby Levy, which suggested that Olmert might have mentioned to Erdogan the possibility of an operation against Hamas. It is hard to confirm this, and indeed it must be borne in mind that the two leaders spoke through translators and that something may have been lost (or gained) in translation. In any case, Erdogan has in the past bitterly criticised Israel's targeted killings of Hamas leaders - as he was of Israel's Gaza attacks - and it is hard to believe that he would have consented to any operation against the Palestinians.
The Turkish role
But the scale of the Israeli military operation in Gaza and the news of the mounting civilian casualties - accompanied by dramatic pictures of the misery of Palestinian women and children in particular - elicited a powerful reaction among Turks. The Turks harbour a sense of emotional ties to the Palestinians deriving from intermingled histories and religious connections, and this too tends to heighten at such periods of suffering.
There were two further reasons for the Ankara government from the outset to attempt to play a leading role in diplomatic efforts to bring the conflict to an end.
First, Turkey assumed its seat in the United Nations Security Council on 1 January 2009 for a two-year period. The Ankara government thus had an additional responsibility to work with the five permanent and nine other non-permanent members of the council act swiftly under the UN charter to help restore peace and stability.
Second, Turkey is the only country that can be said to have close ties to all the parties to the conflict. This can indeed be considered an asset, especially in times of crises when communication and mediation are vital to avoid aggravate further an already dangerous situation. Erdogan's chief foreign-policy advisor Ahmet Davutoglu - who is said to have been responsible for the unexpected visit of the Hamas leader-in-exile Khalid Meshal's visit to Ankara in February 2006 - was again sent to the region to look for ways to reach a ceasefire. It is reported that after Israel declared a unilateral end to its military operations on 17 January 2009, Davutoglu played a crucial role in convincing Hamas to stop firing rockets at Israeli settlements north and east of Gaza.
The ties that bind
The degree of tension in the Turkish public domain during the Gaza conflict, and the scale of criticism of Israel that was manifest in popular demonstrations, may suggest that Turkish-Israeli relations have been seriously damaged. This is possible, though it is worth bearing in mind here that protests of equal size and vehemence took place in European cities and with the participation of citizens of all backgrounds and religions. The extent of the diplomatic fallout, in Turkey and across Europe, has yet to be measured.
The horrible Gaza three-week war, now succeeded by a huge reconstruction task, leaves Turkey and Israel facing the problem of restoring their frayed bilateral relationship. It is realistic to expect this to happen soon after the Israeli election on 10 February 2009. The extensive political, economic and security ties between Turkey and Israel mean they share a strong interest in maintaining close relations.