Turkey Has Role to Play

By George S. Hishmeh – Washington

A new bright star seems to have risen above the Arab world, heralding new relationships that could benefit the region as a whole.

The Arab change of heart towards Turkey, the successor of the dreaded Ottoman Empire, a colonial regime that ruled the Arab world for centuries and collapsed about 90 years ago, came when the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party was elected five years ago. And for the first time in nearly 100 years, Turkish troops descended on Lebanon as part of a UN peacekeeping force following Israel’s occupation of the Shiite-dominated South Lebanon.

But what has impressed Arabs recently has been Turkey’s protests against Israeli policies, especially its brutal assault on Gaza last December, which left about 1,400 Palestinians dead and, in the opinion of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict’s Goldstone Report, amounted to war crimes. In the aftermath, Turkey cancelled joint air force exercises and there have been unconfirmed reports that Turkey may stop buying Israeli arms.

Turkey’s new focus on its neighbours is also believed to be a reaction to the lackadaisical attitude of the European Union, which has yet to act on Turkey’s 10-year-old application for membership in the 27-member organisation. This is over and above US President Barack Obama’s symbolic gesture in visiting Turkey in April, which is believed to have underlined Turkey’s geostrategic importance, emphasising the country’s role as a bridge between East and West and acknowledging its mediation in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"For all the country’s wounded pride, Turkish officials and analysts insist Turkey has no intention of abandoning the West," reported The New York Times earlier this month. "Rather than reorienting Turkish foreign policy toward the East, Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, argued in an interview that the recent outreach to its neighbours including the opening of its border with Syria, the signing of a historic agreement with Armenia to establish normal diplomatic relations and the engagement of Iran was helping Turkey become a more effective interlocutor for its Western allies."

Whether or not this is the case, the Arab world certainly stands to benefit from improved ties with Turkey.

Dr Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League ambassador and director of the Centre for the Global South at the American University in Washington, believes that the "improved relations between Arabs and others are determined by those who constitute either an actual or potential deterrence for Israel’s intransigence and impunity concerning Palestinian rights."

He adds, "This is particularly true when the Arab deterrent to Israeli aggression is relatively dysfunctional in view of the peace treaties, especially between Egypt and Israel. The broad perception becomes that Turkey in some form is taking the task of filling a deficit in Arab deterrence. This does not mean that Israel is breaking some of its strategic alliances, however, it is diminishing dramatically developments of these alliances."

There is no doubt that the ability of Arab governments to influence Western governments is virtually nil, as evidenced in the case of the Obama administration, which to date has been impervious to Arab, and particularly Palestinian pleas to proceed with the peace negotiations. More to the point, the refusal of the Obama administration to challenge the rightist government of Israel has been bewildering. Is this a result of US timidity or, as optimists continue to believe, does Obama have something up his sleeve that will be revealed in due course?

Either way, the current impasse has given Turkey, under the able leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, who once lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, a golden opportunity to develop strong ties with its Arab neighbours.
More developments are expected when the Turkish leader visits Washington for talks with Obama next month.

– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: ghishmeh@aol.com.

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