Anti-Israeli rhetoric jeopardises Ankara's bid to broker peace

Turkey plans two-part peace proposal but may lack credibility because of recent anti-Israeli statements.

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ISTANBUL // Drawing on its influence in the Middle East and new role as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Turkey says it is working on a two-stage plan to end the bloodshed in Gaza and reach a new co-operation agreement among Palestinian groups in Gaza and the West Bank. In addition, Turkey is ready to send soldiers to Gaza if an international peace force for Gaza is created, Cemil Cicek, the deputy prime minister, said yesterday. "If it serves peace", Turkey would be ready to participate in such a force, Mr Cicek told reporters in Ankara after a cabinet meeting.

"We will think well about diplomatic steps, we will discuss them, we will negotiate," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said in a speech on Sunday. Referring to Turkey's two-year membership of the UN Security Council that started with the new year, Mr Erdogan said Turkey would fulfil its obligations whatever they may be. "We started in the Middle East." Turkey, a Muslim nation with a secular structure, is one of the few countries in the region that have good relations with both the Palestinians and with Israel. Ankara has become more involved in Middle Eastern matters in recent years, facilitating indirect talks between Israel and Syria and participating in an international peace force in Lebanon.

But some analysts said it may be hard for the Turks to play a mediating role, especially as Mr Erdogan and leading ministers of his government have firmly blamed Israel for the violence in Gaza. "Israel has created a humanitarian tragedy by using disproportionate force," the prime minister said in his speech on Sunday. "The children killed by these bombs will haunt" Israel, he said. Earlier, he called the Israeli attack on Gaza "merciless" and also a "sign of disrespect" against Turkey, because Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, visited Ankara only days before the bombardment started, but left his hosts in the dark about the planned attack. Mehmet Ali Sahin, the justice minister, called Israel "the biggest provocateur of global terror in the world".

In recent days Mr Erdogan visited Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to win regional support for a two-stage plan his government is working on. The first step is to broker an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, Mr Erdogan said. The second step of the Turkish peace plan consists of efforts to overcome the divisions between Hamas and the Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. Mr Erdogan held talks with Mr Abbas last week. His government has also been talking to Hamas officials, Mr Erdogan confirmed. In addition, the prime minister has held talks with west European politicians who are trying to defuse the crisis, including Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Mirek Topolanek, the Czech prime minister, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency. Meanwhile, Ali Babacan, Turkey's foreign minister, spoke to Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, the CNN-Turk television news channel reported.

Walid al Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, arrived in Ankara yesterday for talks with Mr Babacan and Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president. Mr Erdogan, Mr Gul and Mr Babacan were to hold a meeting on Turkey's options in the Gaza crisis later in the day. The government's diplomatic initiative comes as public outrage about the Israeli attack in Gaza and a perceived lack of will by the West to stop Israel is growing throughout Turkey. Mr Erdogan's speech on Sunday was interrupted by shouts of "Down with Israel". Tens of thousands of people condemned Israel in demonstrations in several Turkish cities over the weekend. Riot police protected the Israeli consulate in Istanbul from angry protesters.

But while reflecting the emotions of many of his fellow citizens by lashing out at Israel, Mr Erdogan may have hurt his own diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis in Gaza. Turkey will not find it easy to play the role of an impartial mediator after the harsh public statements by Mr Erdogan against Israel, said Cengiz Candar, a veteran political analyst and columnist. "The reactions by the prime minister at the start of the operation have weakened a very important trump card in his hand," Mr Candar told the NTV television news channel.

Ortun Orhan, a Middle East analyst at the Centre for Eurasian Strategic Studies, or Asam, a think tank in Ankara, also said Mr Erdogan should make sure that his statements do not go beyond a certain threshold, even if there is worldwide condemnation of Israel. "One has to be careful with the dose of criticism," Mr Orhan said. So far however, Mr Erdogan had stayed within acceptable limits, he said.

According to Mr Orhan, Turkey's chances to play a mediating role in the Gaza conflict have grown, especially because Egypt, the traditional mediator in that kind of situation, has lost credibility in the eyes of Hamas.