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Turkey can help Gaza by not exploiting its tragedy

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Israel’s killing machine is flattening Gaza, killing women and children without any concern for human lives. Under the pretext of home-made rockets fired from Gaza and despite being super-secure with its anti-missile systems and shelters, Israel is out there to turn the small Palestinian open prison into a hell on earth.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins accolades among hawks with Israel’s assault on Gaza. There is another leader who benefits from the tragedy in Gaza: Turkey’s prime minister who is skilled in exploiting Arab causes for his own political ambitions. Now it is time for Arabs to reject another leader who only makes empty promises for political ends.

Erdogan’s political career is awash with combative speeches but there is no single case in which his government was successful in settling down a lingering problem in its neighborhood. If blame is to be doled out to perpetrators of unceasing bloodshed in northern Africa and the Middle East, Ankara will get a lion’s share for failing to wield its tremendous credibility and soft power in cultivating friendships, preserving dialogues among neighbors and reducing strained tensions.

Erdogan’s political career is awash with combative speeches but there is no single case in which his government was successful in settling down a lingering problem in its neighborhood.

Mahir Zeynalov

The quick fall of the Tunisian leadership at the outset of turmoil in the Arab world falsely convinced Ankara that Turkey should throw its weight behind the masses seeking fundamental political transformations in their countries, it seems. That turned out to be a complete mistake with consequences of catastrophic proportions.

How could Turkey help?

In 2008, Syria and Israel made substantial progress in their historic peace talks under Turkish auspices. Erdogan’s contribution to the negotiations was undeniable. In their last meeting in December 2008, Syrian and Israeli delegations were agreed on most thorny issues regarding the occupied Golan Heights bar a single phrase that Israel interpreted broadly. Tackling that, occupation in the Golan Heights would end and both countries would be make peace thanks to Ankara’s tireless efforts.

While Turkish mediators were expecting a response from the Israeli side after their internal negotiations, news reports showed that Israel had launched a wide Gaza offensive. Turkey quickly dropped the negotiations and Erdogan started pompous speeches against Israel. When he walked off the stage in Davos in January 2009, after a spat with moderator David Ignatius, he thought he made a big mistake by alienating key ally Israel.

Several hours later, Erdogan spoke in a press conference and said he was only reacting to the moderator, not Peres. After he returned home, however, he was given a hero’s welcome and he received thousands of greetings from the Arab world. It seems he liked it. He pretended as if he was confronting Israel over the Palestinian cause. What he was doing, however, was securing his position as the “savior of the Islamic world.”

Iran seized the opportunity by using Erdogan’s desire to be popular among Arabs for its domination of the neighborhood. Tehran asked for Turkey’s help in countering NATO and defying international sanctions over its suspected nuclear program. Ankara’s ties with Washington hit historic lows thanks to Iran’s insidious game. Months later, at the advice and assistance of Iranians and their proxies in Turkey, a Turkish charity called IHH (İnsani Yardım Vakfı) organized an international convoy aimed at breaching the Israeli-Egyptian embargo on Gaza . I believe they knew that they would be confronted by Israel and there could be bloodshed. Several lawmakers with the Turkish ruling party AKP refused to travel in the Mavi Marmara at the last minute after getting a tip that Israel’s raid could be deadly, according to my sources. Ankara did nothing to stop the convoy although it seems it had solid intelligence that there would be bloodshed. Ten Turks died and Turkey was humiliated in international arena.

Could the flotilla incident be a plot by Iran, which wanted to counter its arch foe Israel by using Turkey? Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen criticized the convoy, implying that humanitarian aid usually goes through by getting necessary paperwork via local authorities, not through confrontations like that (the U.N.’s efforts, blessed by Ankara, to get permission from Syria’s Assad for humanitarian aid is a good example). Gülen’s call for restraint was not well-received in Turkey judging by the rhetoric. Erdogan’s government initially didn’t comment on Gülen’s remarks and Erdogan’s deputy Bülent Arınç even endorsed the Islamic scholar’s statement about the Mavi Marmara. Erdogan and his supporters today, however, are spinning Gülen’s words to label him as being pro-Israel – a somewhat typical accusation made by Middle Eastern despotic leaders as a way to silence their critics.

Turkey’s mediation in Israeli-Syrian negotiations was only a small part of Ankara’s virtuoso-style diplomacy in its vicinity. But perhaps the prime minister’s political ambitions and his desire to be given standing ovations across the Muslim world consumed Ankara’s credibility and burned bridges which were helping Muslim nations enormously.

Why is Ankara not sincere?

Never mind all the harsh rhetoric against Israel by the Turkish leaders, several months after the Mavi Marmara raid, Israel delivered Herons to Turkey, although Ankara knew that Israel would have sensitive military intelligence garnered through the unmanned aerial vehicles. After the flotilla incident, Turkey’s trade with Israel also skyrocketed.

The Turkish-Israeli trade volume, which was $3.4 billion in 2008, reached $4.4 billion in 2011 and exceeded $4 billion in 2012. Just one year after the Mavi Marmara raid, mutual trade significantly increased. In 2011, imports from Israel reached an all-time high worth $2 billion. Foreign trade volume between Turkey and Israel has increased 27.6 percent in the first half of 2014 compared to the same period in 2013.

One should not be fooled by Erdogan’s daily bashing of Israel; Israeli newspapers have reported that his son's company is known for having lucrative business with Israel. Only a few weeks ago, Erdogan’s government secured the sale of Kurdistan oil to Israel, a development Ankara preferred to remain silent about.

Morality in international politics

We should make one thing clear here: Erdogan is a leader of a country, not another Islamist activist. International politics has its own distinct rules and order; statesmen usually don’t just throw words out of their mouth without careful internal deliberations. Officials of the U.S., a world superpower, don’t even do that, let alone much weaker Turkey. With irresponsible statements, the interests of nations could be on the line and impromptu emotional speeches could make matters much worse.

Israel’s offensive in Gaza is reprehensible, deserves highest degree of condemnation and the world must be united in convincing Israel that it is actually bombing its future rather than innocents in Gaza. But is yelling during election rallies part of a plan to stop the bloodshed in Gaza? Should not Erdogan be out calling his interlocutors other than the Iranian president in a bid to seek ways for a possible ceasefire? I’m expecting my prime minister to act in a smart way to stop the Gaza tragedy instead of emptily bashing Israel and accusing his critics of being pro-Israel.

This is not only true for the Palestinian cause, but also for many other Arab problems that Erdogan so skillfully exploited. He was out last year yelling against the Egyptian military and urging the Muslim Brotherhood to resist. The result? Thousands dead, hundreds arrested and the Brotherhood is outlawed. Is that what Erdogan promised them?

Iran exploited the Palestinian cause for years to elevate its popularity among Muslims. It is Erdogan’s turn, and sadly many buy his empty talk.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.