Whenever a Turkish official makes a diplomatic gesture in the Arab-Islamic region, the media goes on analyzing it and starts speculating about the expected Turkish role in the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian cause. Hence, so many people start writing analyses about the existing and anticipated Turkish role and forging of new relations that would develop between the countries of the region including Israel.
It is also noticeable that the Turkish media supporting the current government or the Justice and Development Party (AKP) goes even further in its description of the Turkish role and praising it together with its anticipated merits.
There seems to be a complex with the state leaders of the Arab-Islamic region; they actually like praise and commendation as to the roles they play both on the regional and international levels as if there is something missing locally and they try to find their way out for a glory they craved or that they are looking for a way to enhance their internal status so they engage in an external activity.
It is so easy to notice this matter in the official media that endeavors to portray the leaders as gifted and talented geniuses who are internationally influential and who have gained people's respect due to their wisdom and strong charisma.
This complex persists for some time, then it abates when confronted with the bitter truth that the states of the region do need a huge and concerted effort to get to the level of real impact on the regional and international spheres.
Monopolizing of the Palestinian cause
Since 1967, America and Israel have been exclusively collaborating to look for a solution to the Palestine Question. The two countries have decided that any suggestion for a solution to the Arab- Israeli conflict must obtain approval from both countries none of whom would single-handedly give its approval and leave the other susceptible to criticism or pressure by other countries or international organizations.
For this reason, the two countries have found it necessary to get the Palestinian cause out of the corridors of international organizations and congregations such as the United Nations and keep it within reach and under their direct supervision, that is to keep the Palestinian cause away from decisions that may forge international reference or an international legitimacy that would place the two countries in a critical legal position.
The two countries do not mind discussing marginal issues and ramifications of the Palestinian cause in the corridors of the UN. They have no objection to having other countries as partners in the diplomacy of the search for peace but only on condition that the essence of the conflict remains under the American- Israeli umbrella. For instance, there is no objection to discussing the issue of the judaization of Al-Quds (Jerusalem) in the UN General Assembly but all resolutions by this latter are not binding and are of no concern to Israel. America, however, is ready to use the veto in case the matter is discussed in the Security Council. The two countries also see no objection to a European diplomatic role in the region as long as it is under their control rather than a real role backed with measures putting pressures on Israel.
America and Israel look at efforts by other countries with regard to the Arab- Israeli conflict as marginal efforts that make those countries feel that they are in a way making a contribution to the solution and this gives them a sense of pride and glory. America and Israel do not mind cooperating within those margins.
The strongest proof of this is the role these two countries give to Egypt, which justifies the Egyptian regime's continuous praise of itself for being a major player in fixing what is wrong in the Arab-Islamic region. Yet, the two states did not even bother to discuss the 2002 Arab Summit and were contented with flattering it from afar.
The Turkish role in the region
Turkey could play a crucial and dynamic role in the Arab-Islamic region as it possesses the required potential. It also possesses a large geographical area that links Asia to Europe. It has a large population of about 70 million. It has great natural resources especially water and could play the role of the water tank for the region and establish a huge network of water pipes to provide water for the Arab countries that suffer from its scarcity. Thus, Turkey could guarantee for itself a huge income.
Turkey possesses a good industrial capacity and could export a lot of its products to Arab countries. It is an attractive place with reasonable market prices that attract tourists from the countries of the region.
Turkey is an oriental Islamic country and could easily find its way back to the Arab region and would be warmly welcomed especially by the Arab countries where it would definitely find a warmer cradle than the European one. Arab markets are currently stuffed with Turkish products. Things could improve so that the public interaction as well as the social and economical relations would develop accordingly.
Therefore, Turkey could have a crucial role in the Arab-Islamic region and could be highly effective in dealing with people's concerns in the region and push them towards evolution and progress for the benefit of all.
The economic, social and cultural role that can be played by Turkey has been almost totally absent from the media. The emphasis has only been laid upon the diplomatic role that Turkey may play in the solution to Arab-Israeli conflict, as if Turkey could only gain importance through Israel or its capacity to convince the Arabs to accept Western and Israeli political theses regarding the conflict.
Turkey is always very active in strengthening its relations with its Arab-Islamic milieu. Nonetheless, the media is only provoked by its action in diplomacy especially when it comes to negotiations between Syria and Israel.
Dwarfing of the Turkish role
America and Western countries in general were not pleased with the government led by Abdullah Gul due to its strengthening its relations with Syria and Iran after 2002 as these two countries did not agree with the Western desire to reconfigurate the region.
Discomfort was aggravated by Turkey's refusal to allow the US logistical facilities for the invasion of Iraq. Turkey was subject to vast campaigns of criticism in Western political, intellectual and media circles. People started saying that there was a shift in Turkey from secularism to Islamic ideology; some went on talking about Gul and Erdogan as advocates of Fundamentalism.
Turkey's shares have increased among Western countries when it took the initiative in hosting indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel. Hopes were raised as to Turkey's ability to create a breakthrough that would alienate Syria from Iran and bring it to the so-called moderate states by the West. In other words, the Western yelling at Turkey was not due to its playing a new role in the region but rather due to the probability of moving Syria from one trench to another.
This was demonstrated when Erdogan protested at the 2009 Davos Annual Meeting against the organizers and walked out of the Gaza panel in protest of the Zionist-controlled Davos forum. Although, back home, he was given a hero's welcome, no Western statements were issued to praise Erdogan's sense of pride and honor. Instead, there were statements that criticized him to such an extent that some journalists described him as being anti-Semitic and hostile to the Jews.
The campaign of praise and reverence has recently been resumed as Erdogan visited Syria and met with President Al-Assad with the aim of reactivating indirect negotiations with Israel. The undisclosed hope by European politicians remains the alienation of Syria from Iran and Hezbollah.
Israel trusts no one and I do not think it trusts Turkey either. It is not, however, ready to boycott Turkey or leave it to its Arab-Islamic milieu. Turkey is a big country and could play a huge role in rearranging the balance of power in the region if it chooses to side with Iran and Syria. I do not imagine America and Israel taking the risk by declaring Turkey their enemy or adopting policies that would isolate it from the West. They want to preserve the good relations, albeit formally, and continue to push Turkey towards more attempts with Syria.
In other words, the West is not concerned with Turkey because of the remarkable and hidden powers it possesses but rather with what it can do for the sake of Israel. Their visions do not go beyond using Turkey as a tool to weaken the other party in the Arab -Israeli conflict.
The recent Turkish-Israel-American maneuvers (in August 2009) may be understood from this angle. America and Israel hold on to their diplomatic friendship with Turkey and try to keep it within the current international equation under the US leadership. The maneuvers are limited in space and sphere. Yet, they guarantee getting Turkey back to the sphere of doubt for some Arabs and Muslims and keeping it within the Western alliance. So many Arabs will rethink the enthusiasm streamed at the rebellious Turkish prime minister as he stood up and walked out of the Davos forum and they will try to express their sorrow for sympathizing with him.
Between the Turkish and Iranian roles
Journalists very much compare between the Turkish and Iranian roles whenever Turkey makes a diplomatic gesture in the region and claim that the Turkish role is nourished by the Iranian role and that Iran's role will shrink as Turkey gets closer to the region especially in the Arab Gulf.
All these claims are simply not true for two reasons: Iran acts from outside the system, whereas Turkey acts from within the system; Iran's influence is not diplomatic but rather material, evolutionary and individual. Iran is rebellious against the so-called existing world order, or rather the posse of states led by the US. It does not want to act from within this orbit and abhors its injustice, subjugation and exploitation of people. It appears set on a collision course with this grouping. Turkey is, however, part of this order despite the bursts of rebellion that come from its leaders from time to time. It is not preparing itself for any confrontation.
Perhaps Turkey has aspirations of independence to get out of this order/grouping. It is nonetheless hesitant and cannot make up its mind at least in the current military and economic context. Turkey revolted and refused to assist in the war on Iraq and Erdogan protested against Peres in Davos. Yet, Turkey has maintained good relations with Israel, normalized relations with it and still have military ties with Israel. It is still bidding to join the European Union and still acts within the sphere of American Israeli criteria.
The Turkish role is not out of control as to the American- Israeli vision and it has no tendency to quit that circle. Therefore, it will not be nurtured at the expense of anybody's role and will continue to be classified within the existing balance of powers and alliances although it is part of neither pole in the region i.e. the Arab-Israeli-American and the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah. Turkey's role is different from the Iranian in its essence, forms, methods and aspirations. It will not be a rival to the Iranian role as long as it keeps itself within the American-Israeli satisfaction.
Between authenticity and substitution
Turkey may compete with Egypt in terms of its role in looking for a solution to the Palestine Question as the Egyptian role is disciplined to the criteria of the existing world order. It is not an original role but rather restrained by these criteria. Egypt's role is that of a delegate, a marginal role that may be summarized by participation in international activities and hosting them at Sharm al Sheikh. It does not go beyond integration or subordination to those who are committed to provide financial and military assistance.
Therefore, no matter how hard the Egyptian regime tries to "change its skin", it will not be able to do it for it is so much disciplined to the so-called international criteria, which also applies to Turkey.
If Turkey wants to have an efficient role, it will have to preserve its independence in formulating a vision for a solution in the region and then start to convince other parties with it.
But if it decides to stay where it is now in terms of its position in world politics, it will have no choice but to adopt a convincing language with Syria and Hamas to get them to accept the American-Israeli approach and will therefore find itself repeating the very Egyptian role.
Translated by Monjia Abdallah Abidi for MEMO
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.