Erdogan Slams Israel on Start of Arab Tour

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, has told Arab foreign ministers that Israel has isolated itself and must "pay the price" after refusing to apologise for its raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla last year.

In his opening address to a meeting of Arab League in Cairo on Tuesday, Erdogan also condemned Israeli policies and said that the recognition of a Palestinian state was "not an option but an obligation".

Erdogan spoke as part of a three-day visit to Egypt aimed at boosting his government’s standing in the Arab world after the uprisings of the "Arab Spring".

Many in the Arab world have cheered Erdogan’s tough stance on Israel. Turkey suspended military ties with Israel, expelled top Israeli diplomats, pledged to support the Palestinians’ statehood bid and vowed to send the Turkish navy to escort Gaza-bound aid ships in the future.

Erdogan told the ministers, Israel "must pay the price for the crimes it committed".

Turkey’s Campaign

Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros, reporting from Cairo, said: "We saw a huge reception for him when he arrived on Monday night at the airport. About a thousand people, some of them throwing flowers at Prime Minister Erdogan."

The prime minister is due to meet Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling council that took over when Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February, on Tuesday and will address the Cairo-based Arab League.

Egypt has long viewed itself as a leading voice in the Arab world, but Turkey’s influence has risen steadily with its growing economic might and its assertive policy in the region, notably towards Israel, which has drawn praise from many Arabs.

"There will be rivalry over a regional role for sure. Egypt is not in a position to play such a role at the moment so Erdogan is trying to take advantage of that," said Adel Soliman, head of Cairo’s International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies.

Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador in a feud over an Israeli raid last year that killed eight Turks and a US citizen of Turkish descent aboard an aid flotilla bound for the besieged Gaza Strip.

Egypt said it would withdraw its ambassador from Israel last month after five Egyptian border guards were killed as Israeli security forces pursued gunmen it said were responsible for deadly attacks in southern Israel.

But it did not follow through with the threat.

Egypt’s military government has struggled to quell the public fury over the incident, which boiled over into an attack by protesters on the Israeli embassy on Saturday that prompted Israel to fly its ambassador and embassy staff home.

Both Egypt and Israel say they want a return to normal diplomatic activities. Cairo has vowed to protect the embassy and try the attackers, offering some reassurance to Israel over its commitment to a 1979 peace treaty.


Despite their spats with Israel, Soliman played down prospects of the two nations aligning policies against Israel.

"I don’t think they will have any big agreements when it comes to Israel," he said. "There is a lot of exaggeration, I see it more as theatrics than anything practical."

Still, the meeting may see an alignment of policies on the issue of Palestine.

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, told Al Jazeera that the visit will spell a "common front" on Palestinian statehood.

"What we will see today is a common front in the region, a very clear message for support of the Palestinian leadership and for Palestinian statehood," he said. "That is Turkey and all 22 members of the Arab league. That is a very significant thing."

Shaikh added that "on this Palestinian issue, Turkey has shown its independence [of US influence] and is also leading, in many, ways the Arab streets."

Egypt has received billions of dollars in US military and other aid since signing its peace treaty with Israel, so the ruling generals face a balancing act when responding to public calls for a more assertive policy towards Israel.

When asked on Sunday about the attack on Israel’s Cairo embassy, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said Egyptians had given their own reaction and that Israel was more isolated.

"We as Turkey say that we will continue to bring on to the agenda Israel’s incorrect attitudes in all global platforms in the framework of international law and after this Israel will become even more isolated," Davutoglu added.

Uzi Rabi, a Middle East analyst at Tel Aviv University, said Erdogan’s trip was part of his bid to "strengthen his foothold in the Arab world."

"He will use his visit to Cairo as a barometer to measure just how popular he is in the Arab street but some Arab leaders may not be as enthusiastic about seeing him feed on this popularity," he added.

Andrew Finkel, author and journalist, told Al Jazeera that the prime minister was also using the tour to restore trade.

"He’s obviously there to restore commercial relations with these countries," he said. "At the same time, he’s there to claim a sort of diplomatic and political presence."

Erdogan is due to visit Tunisia on Wednesday and hold talks in Libya on Thursday.

(Al Jazeera and Agencies)

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