Erdogan's new zeal for friends surpasses wildest expectations

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not exactly known as a peacemaker, and public apologies are not his forte.

He blusters against the European Union and Germany, and he is in conflict with the United States and Russia. Ankara has also seen troubled relations with Israel and Egypt, to name but a few.

To be blunt, Erdogan's Turkey has lost many friends over the years.

And that's what makes Monday's news all the more remarkable, tinged as it was by messages of peace and reconciliation.

Erdogan's new prime minister, Binali Yildirim, announced only a couple of days ago that it was Ankara's foreign policy goal to "increase the number of its friends and reduce that of its enemies."

It's easy to understand why that might be a goal. One only has to look at the country's empty tourist beaches.

But still, a few weeks ago, it didn't seem likely that Turkey would so quickly cosy up to two countries from which it has been alienated: Israel and Russia. Certainly few would have expected it all to happen on the same day.

Relations with Israel had been at a low for more than six years. Now the two countries have concluded a reconciliation agreement.

The crisis with Israel started with a ship - the Mavi Marmara, which today lies moored like a memorial on the Asian side of Istanbul on the Bosporus.

In 2010, Israeli naval commandos raided the ship as it headed to the Gaza Strip as part of an aid flotilla. Nine Turkish nationals were killed. According to the agreement, their families are now to receive 20 million dollars from Israel.

Erdogan had been a backer of the Palestinians long before the incident. Turkey still remembers his legendary appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009, when he accused then-Israeli president Shimon Peres of killing Palestinian children.

Following the raid of the Mavi Marmara, Erdogan's criticism of Israel escalated. Even an apology from Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu three years later could not change that.

Now "the terrorist state of Israel" had "outdone Hitler in barbarism" through its attacks on Gaza, Erdogan said during the Gaza War in the summer of 2014.

Israel's then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman called Erdogan an "anti-Semitic bully" as recently as early 2015.

Erdogan, who has close relations with the Islamist Hamas movement, has always called for an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip. The present agreement, however, does not include a lifting of the Egyptian-backed blockade, even though it allows Turkish aid to pass through the port of Ashdod.

The naval blockade of Gaza will continue, as Netanyahu said on Monday.

However, for Turkey this seems to be a minor detail.

"Turkey achieves lifting of Gaza blockade," the daily Sabah, which is close to the government, wrote on Monday.

Prime Minister Yildirim said: "This agreement has normalized relations with Israel. Under Turkish leadership it has achieved ... a lifting of the majority of embargoes imposed on Palestine, in particular on Gaza."

So is it all just a matter of interpretation?

The same might apply to the conflict with Russia, for which Moscow and Ankara have now found a clever diplomatic solution.

At the end of November, the Turkish air force downed a Russian warplane near the border to Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin was outraged and imposed painful sanctions on its former ally, Turkey.

Putin insisted on an apology. While Erdogan expressed his regret - which was quite something given his track record - he also insisted: "We won't apologize to Russia." The situation seemed hopeless.

On Monday there was a solution: Erdogan wrote a letter to Putin apologizing - not to Russia, but to the family of the pilot killed in the incident. On the diplomatic level, Erdogan explicitly maintained his expression of "regret."

Now Putin is able to claim that Erdogan has apologized, as he had demanded, while Erdogan is able to say he only expressed his regret without apologizing to Putin.

Thus both sides can save face, and the two economically stricken countries are able to resume business relations. Steps to improve their bilateral relations would be taken "without delay," Erdogan's spokesman announced.

But that doesn't mean Turkey has mended all of its fences. Relations with Germany, for example, remain at a low thanks to Turkish ire at a recent German decision to recognize the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman troops during World War I as a "genocide."

The tiff had taken the form of a ban on German officials visiting the NATO base at Incirlik, in southern Turkey. But even that stand-off saw a breakthrough Monday, when Yildirim announced that German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen would be allowed a visit after all.

The question then becomes: Whom will Turkey (re)befriend next?

Last update: Mon, 27/06/2016 - 23:22

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