Analysis: Erdogan's harsh Israel rhetoric tests Turkey's role as bridge between East and West

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — He blasted the attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla as a "bloody massacre," walked out on a meeting with Israel's president and cozied up to American adversaries such as Syria and Iran.

Is Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, long seen as a vital bridge between East and West, engaged in a historic reversal of Turkey's western-leaning policies and seeking to carve out a role as a leader in the Islamic world?

The prime minister walks a delicate tightrope: On one hand there are his Islamic powerbase and Turkey's faltering bid to join the EU; on the other, a strongly pro-Western military and wide recognition that close ties with the West are vital to its emergence as an economic power.

Despite Islamist roots, Erdogan has long been widely viewed as a pragmatist largely loyal to the legacy of Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who sought to create a secular, modern state from the ashes of the Ottoman empire.

He has been committed to keeping his nation in NATO and steering it toward EU membership — and until recently was unwavering in maintaining Turkey's role as Israel's best friend in the Islamic world.

All of that is now being questioned as Erdogan carries out a string of actions that raise fears he may be turning his back on the West, and Muslim nations — along with his own domestic support base — are applauding his increasingly harsh rhetoric against the Jewish state.

His recent decision to team up with Brazil in brokering a dead with Iran on its nuclear program — independent of efforts by the U.S. — also shows that he may be coming to the view that Turkey's future lies in partnerships with emerging economic powers of the developing world.

But in this complicated country — the heart of a once-mighty sultanate that ruled much of Europe and the Middle East — things are rarely as they seem on the surface.

Erdogan may calculate that his nation's hoped-for rise to economic prominence still largely depends on stable ties with the West — and he has long implemented business-friendly policies that have kept his nation on a growth path.

Surprisingly to some, he has also been widely seen as a more competent manager of social and economic reforms aimed at making Turkey fit for EU membership than the secular Ataturk-inspired elites who ruled before him.

More than a radical shift toward the Islamic world, Erdogan's inflammatory words may signal an urge to appease anger at home, and possibly create political leverage with the West, while hoping eventually to ensure Turkey's alliance with the West remains intact.

Erdogan rejects accusations that Turkey is changing its orientation, insisting its foreign policy has always been multifaceted and that it is seeking alliances on all fronts.

"We are a country that wants to maintain its ties both with the West and the East," Erdogan in October in response to criticism that he was steering Turkey away from the West. "There is no such thing as breaking from one side and shifting to another one."

Still, he was held up as a hero in the Arab world last year during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, when he publicly berated Israeli President Shimon Peres, saying "You know how to kill" and storming off the podium in anger.

His posters and Turkish flags are frequently held up during anti-Israel protests in Arab countries.

The killing of at least four Turkish activists among nine passengers slain by Israeli naval commandos provoked his strongest outburst yet against Israel, with Erdogan accusing Israel of having blood on its hands and signaling a possible irreversible damage to ties.

"Nothing will be the same again," Erdogan said, gesturing angrily, his voice shaking at times.

After coming to power in 2002, Erdogan worked rigorously to advance Turkey's EU bid, leading to the opening of membership talks in 2005 and dispelling fears that his Islamic-rooted party's huge election victory would inject Muslim ideology into secular Turkey.

But as EU reservations against letting in Turkey increased and his public's affection toward Europe waned, Erdogan began a two-pronged diplomatic strategy — carving out a more independent role and courting Turkey's long-ignored neighbors in the Middle East.

A survey conducted by Ankara University in January showed that only around half of the population supported EU membership and that 11.6 percent of the population found the EU to be "trustworthy and sincere." It gave no margin of error.

Turkey has cultivated close ties with Syria — a nation it nearly went to war against in 1998 over its alleged support to Kurdish rebels, and with traditional rival Iran, defending its right to develop nuclear power to the dismay of Turkey's long-standing NATO ally, the United States.

Last month, Erdogan paid a surprise visit to Tehran and with Brazil brokered a nuclear fuel-swap deal while accusing the U.S. and other nuclear-armed powers of applying double standards and not eliminating their own nuclear weapon stockpiles.

Turkey played a role in mediation efforts between Israel and Syria, between rival Palestinian groups, as well as between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It has alarmed allies by hosting the exiled political leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, as well as Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, indicted for alleged war crimes in Darfur. Erdogan went as far as to defend al-Bashir, saying "it is not possible for those who belong to the Muslim faith to carry out genocide."

Those visits and his increasingly outspoken tirades against Israel are held up by some as proof that he has chosen to align Turkey with countries such as Iran and Syria. Others see a ploy to appeal to certain sectors of the Turkish electorate as signs emerge that support for Erdogan's political party may be under pressure.

The AKP emerged the leading party in local elections last year with 39 percent of the vote, but that was a significant slide from its landslide victory in elections in 2007.

"This country's foreign policy is being re-designed just for the sake of keeping the votes of a group of people who keep Palestinian rather than Turkish flags at home," wrote Oray Egin, a columnist for Aksam newspaper.

If so, such domestic maneuvering may be a tricky game — perhaps leading almost unintentionally to a more Islamist orientation for Turkey by fueling the forces of tradition and conservatism.

"Turkey is moving closer to an Islamic perspective with this government," said 20-year-old university student Gizem Erdogan.

"Then again, the West does nothing to support Turkey so steering closer to the Islamic league seems natural to me."

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Suzan Fraser has covered Turkey since 1996.