The impression that Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul creates on his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority could have far-reaching consequences, since Gul is already eyeing the prime ministry in 2007. That is when current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to capture the Turkish presidency, thereby creating a vacancy. Until then, Erdogan and Gul will make every effort to strengthen their Justice and Development Party by improving Turkey's regional and international standing.
To do this, Turkey needs diplomatic cooperation with Israel, or at least the appearance of participation in the peace process, and good relations with Washington; even more importantly, it must convince Europe that Turkey does not constitute an "Islamic threat" to the European Union. All three of these are also needed to allay the fears of the Turkish army, which continues to suspect Erdogan's Islamic party of wanting to give Turkey a religious character.
This background dictates Turkey's regional order of priorities. At least in the near future, the "European approach" will guide its foreign policy. Thus, like the EU, Turkey has signed economic cooperation agreements with Syria, favors dialogue with Iran and seeks to reduce the influence of radical Islam. And its attitude toward Israel will also depend on that of Europe.
In practice, Israel can expect security cooperation with Turkey to continue, since this aspect of its relations with Ankara is governed by the Turkish military. Economic cooperation, however, is likely to suffer. Already, Turkey has frozen certain civilian projects with Israel because it prefers to involve European firms in order to smooth its membership talks with the EU.
Gul and Erdogan understand that as long as Washington remains the regional dominator, Turkey's role in the peace process will be limited to transmitting diplomatic messages from Syria or Iran and otherwise serving as a mediator and facilitator. Its weakness lies in its inability to influence either Israel or the Arab states. In this, it differs from Egypt or Saudi Arabia, whose decisions can confer legitimacy on moves by other Arab countries.
On the other hand, Turkey is the only Muslim state to have truly friendly relations with Israel. Moreover, it also has good relations with Israeli enemies such as Syria and Iran. This is a lever that Israel has thus far failed to exploit, but that Turkey would like to put to use.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now