The reactions of the Turkish government following the tragic events in the territorial waters off Gaza have a range of domestic and international ramifications. Right now one significant international emphasis is on the worsened bilateral relations with what was just ten years ago its closest ally in the region, Israel. But what could very well become more significance in the years to come, are the kind of expectations the Turkish government’s responses to the Gaza situation since late 2008, and particularly the rhetoric of the government in the past few days invariably produce in the Arab Middle East and beyond. Not only has the Turkish government been fierce and outspoken in their critique of the Israeli government, its policies and its actions throughout the past days, and threatened with various responses. The government has also, through their critique and actions, taken on the role as the voice of the critical international community with regard to the Gaza issue in specific and the Palestinian issue in general. Turkey now speaks for the world, at least for that part of the world that sees injustice being done. Not least in the Arab Middle East Turkish reactions most likely leads to increased expectations of Turkey being able to deliver on the issue and hence do the almost impossible: somehow contribute to a revitalization of the peace process. Other countries, like Iran, may have articulated themselves in similar terms as the government. However, as opposed to such countries, which have no legitimacy in the international stage, Turkey’s international position and alliances hold other promises. The Turkish government may therefore slam down on its Israeli counterpart as we speak. But if pressure on Turkey to live up to such expectations rises, they may rather quickly find themselves having to improve relations with Israel once again to succeed.
Turkish prime minister Erdoğan has spent the past days threatening a severe Turkish response to the Gaza incident, where a number of Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli soldiers during the attempt of the latter to take control of a ship attempting to bring aid to Gaza. No doubt Erdoğan will have to deliver on his promise to the Turkish public, who are for the most part outraged by Israel’s Gaza policies. Pictures of the Israeli bombings of Gaza in late 2008 left quite an impression on most Turks. It resulted in a number of solidarity demonstrations, a fierce critique of Israel and its imperialist friends, and a sincere wish to help those who suffered and were victims of such policies in Gaza. Among other, this heartfelt outrage and indignation revolving round a sense of great injustice being done, was a driving force behind the ‘one minute’ incident in Davos. Here prime minister Erdoğan managed to tell Shimon Peres that Israelis know well how to kill, before he got up and left the session infuriated because he as opposed to the Israeli representative was only allotted a couple of minutes to speak. Since then what the Turks deemed a downright humiliation of the Turkish ambassador to Israel, and a Turkish TV series dealing with life in the Palestinian territories have contributed to remind Turks of their sincerely felt indignation. Should Erdoğan fail to deliver with regard to the Gaza incident it could cost the AKP a number of votes in the national elections, which are to be held next year at the latest. It would simply make Erdoğan and the AKP seem untrustworthy and would make them vulnerable to critique.
But the implicit built-up in expectations, which is somehow part of the way in which Turkey has publically lashed out at Israel, is not just taking place with regard to a domestic audience. If not before then definitely now Turkish government starts to look like someone who will take on the role of ring leader in that part of the international community who oppose Israeli policies and push for a solution to the Palestinian issue. In other words it seems as if a range of Arab Middle East countries now actually begin to see Turkey as a state who will possibly be able to revive the peace process through their pressure on Israel. In that sense the stakes are gradually getting much higher for Turkey. The government may quickly find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place as they aim to produce international results with regard to the Palestinian issue, while they also need to hammer away on the Israeli government. No doubt, the Turkish government has no ambition to return to the warm relationship with Israel of for example the 1990ies. This is not in line with the foreign political vision of the AKP. Nor does it serve the security interests of Turkey any longer, on the contrary. Yet there may be a high price to pay if Israel mistrusts Turkey to the extent where Turkey has no role to play with regard to attempts to revitalize the peace process. This has already been seen in relation to Turkey’s attempts to revitalize the Israel-Syria rapprochement, but here the stakes were much lower than in the present Gaza related case. If Turkey fails to live up to its expectations and disappoints the raising expectations in the Arab Middle East, the centre-stage role the current Turkish government envisions for Turkey with regard to peace efforts in the region and with regard to positioning Turkey as a major regional (and global) power may soon prove to be far from reality.
As stated the current Gaza incident has multiple domestic and international ramifications, and only a few have been touched upon in this analysis. Significantly though, as sketched above, the Gaza incident may just prove to be the event that provides the Turkish government with the opportunity to live out their foreign policy visions, including the role of Turkey as regional power, problem solver and peace promoter in the wider Middle East. But if they cannot live up to the expectations and deliver the results that supposedly should come with such a role as ring leader, Gaza could also bring the downfall of the AKP’s ambitious foreign political visions for Turkey once the enthusiasm of the Arab Middle East withers and disillusionment sets in. Stakes have always been high for those who take up the Palestinian issue. Turkey is no exception in this regard.