For the third time, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has walked away from the polls with a stunning victory, with his party sweeping up almost 50 percent of the total vote in the country's legislative elections. In his victory speech on Sunday night, Erdogan declared that his win constituted a victory not only for the Turkish people, but was also one to be celebrated in "Izmir as in Beirut, in Ankara as in Damascus, in Diyarbakir as in Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza."
Nonetheless, Erdogan's new term in office will begin with his Middle East policy in disarray, with the brewing crisis across the border in Syria, the threat of instability spreading to Lebanon, and sinking credibility among the Palestinians, whom he used often as a rhetorical tool during the election campaign but whose long-term prosperity he had done almost nothing tangible to advance during his eight years in office.
During the last two years, Erdogan wholeheartedly adopted the policy of his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, which calls for working to secure strong relations with all of the states bordering Turkey. Few could argue against the wisdom of this policy. Indeed, the Turkish economy owes much of its success to its massive investments in northern Iraq, its strong economic ties with Iran and the more recent investments in Syria. With the situation in Syria spiraling out of control, however, Erdogan is now faced with a dilemma, caused by his having misinterpreted the two states' relationship: Where President Bashar Assad saw his newfound relationship with Turkey as one between equals, Erdogan perceived Turkey as serving as some of sort of surrogate big brother to the weak Syrian state; in essence, Syria was to serve as a regional satellite state of Turkey, while the latter would reap the benefits of the underdeveloped Syrian market.
It seems clear that Bashar Assad's days are numbered, and there is no doubt that Turkey will enter a period of "damage control" to secure its investments in Syria and to try to foster a stable transfer of power there. Nevertheless, Turkey will have a hard time coping with the regional implications of continued civil strife in Syria, and its possible spillover into Lebanon - not to mention the destabilizing effect it could have on Turkey's Kurdish southeast.
If Erdogan is sincere about his victory also being one for the "West Bank and Gaza," then he and Davutoglu will need to take two steps back and rethink their role vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians, and perhaps address the internal contradiction between their respective visions.
Whereas Erdogan often meddles in internal politics, Davutoglu opts for the hands-off approach, understanding that as long as Turkey remains an economic powerhouse with a dynamic society, the states of the region will naturally drift toward it. In other words, it seems that Davutoglu understands that the Turks' real legacy in the region will be to act as a neutral moderator between the various Arab parties, and to work toward a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That's a much different stance than that of Erdogan, who during the elections did not miss a chance to use Israel as a punching bag - something which, even if it scores points with the Turkish electorate, does not necessarily play as well with Palestinians, who know from past experience with Arab regimes that empty rhetoric does not translate to a better future.
Furthermore, the fact that it was the post-Mubarak Egyptian government, and not Turkey, that was able to negotiate a rapprochement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas shows how much Erdogan's grandstanding in support of Hamas has isolated Turkey from Ramallah's halls of power.
If Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks back to his first years in office, beginning in 2003, he will see that Arabs admired Turkey for its ability to retain a strong relationship with both sides of the conflict. Arab societies and states have lived in a polarized system for decades now. They simply do not need a new polarizing force in the region, something that Turkey - through Erdogan's assertive politics - has become. While Ankara believed that its new regional role would translate into political leverage, Damascus has displayed in the harshest way that it does not. And although Israel certainly deserves its share of the blame for the rapid deterioration in relations between Jerusalem and Ankara, there is no question that, without Israel, Turkey will not be able to make any real progress on the Palestinian front, let alone on larger regional questions.
For now, Turkey's priority should be to prevent the region from falling into another war, which only can be done by rekindling its ties with Israel, even as it continues to strengthen its links with the Palestinians and other regional states. If this happens, plenty of leaders will be knocking on Erdogan's door, and he will be able not only to prove himself to be one of the great masters of Turkish politics, but also the leader who helped bring stability and prosperity to the region as a whole.
Louis Fishman is an assistant professor of history at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and divides his time between New York, Istanbul and Tel Aviv. He blogs about Turkish, Israeli and Middle Eastern politics at: http://louisfishman.blogspot.com/
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