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September 08, 2011

Analysts Warn of Tensions from Turkish PM's North Africa Tour

by Dorian Jones

Turkey's prime minister has further ratcheted up tensions against Israel, warning that Turkish warships will escort any Turkish ship seeking to break Israel's blockade of Gaza. The crisis centers on Israel's refusal to apologize for last year's killing of Turkish activists who were part of a flotilla seeking to break the blockade. The prime minister's threat comes ahead of his planned trip Monday to North African countries.

In a television interview Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said any Turkish ship seeking to break Israel's blockade of Gaza will be escorted by the Turkish navy. The threat comes after the prime minister had said Turkey would increase its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. The remarks come ahead of Erdogan's visit Monday to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Political columnist Soli Ozel says the escalating crisis will only confirm the fears of Israeli Foreign Minister Avi Lieberman.

"There lies a power struggle over the eastern Mediterranean," said Ozel. "The stakes are great. And in that, Lieberman is actually clearer than anyone else. He says Turkey wants to dominate us. It wants to be a regional power with global aspirations. I actually share his analysis, if not his views."

Erdogan's trip to North Africa could further inflame tensions with Israel, with the prime minister indicating he would like to visit Gaza and hold talks with its Hamas leadership. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the European Union and the U.S. But such a visit is dependent on Egypt giving permission to use its crossing into Gaza at Rafa. International relations expert Cengiz Aktar says that could put Cairo's new government in a difficult position.

"We do not know yet whether the Egyptians have accepted that he crosses the border at Rafa," said Aktar. "They are re-evaluating their Israeli policy as well so they will decide within this framework of reevaluation of Egypt's new policy."

The Egyptian government's reluctance to grant Erdogan's request has caused reported irritation in Ankara. But it is believed Cairo is facing strong pressure from both Israel and the United States not to do so. The Gaza visit has drawn criticism in Turkey, along with claims the prime minister's North African tour is too premature, with all the countries to be visited in the process of a transition to democracy. But former Turkish diplomat Murat Bilhan says such a visit is important.

"It looks ambitious, maybe can materialize, maybe cannot be," said Bilhan. "But I mean the point is in question. Turkey is [a] regional power and should be seen as such by others."

During his visit to Egypt, Erdogan is reported to be confirming a naval cooperation agreement. Joint naval exercises also are expected to be on the agenda. Such moves will likely be seen as another threat to Israel and further flexing of Turkish military might in the region.

Trade also is expected to be a key issue during Erdogan's trip, in particular safeguarding Turkey's considerable business interests in Libya. International relations expert Aktar says Erdogan's tough stance against Israel will mean he will be well-received during his trip, but this should not be rated too highly.

"He will be cherished in the Arab street, but I don't think more than that," he said. "At the end of the day, Egypt is there, and Egypt considers Turkey as a challenger, not a partner yet. We'll see. I think there is a new equilibrium setting in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey can be a positive, proactive in this new equilibrium, if it simply can ignore the bombastic and overconfident ways lecturing in the region."

During his trip to North Africa, Prime Minister Erdogan is expected to present Turkey as a role model to the region, with a booming economy and successfully transitioning to a democracy. But observers warn that while Erdogan's anti-Israeli stance will likely prove popular among Arabs, memories of Turkey as a former colonial master may mean there will be reluctance to grant any Turkish aspirations to become the regional leader.