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Turkey spreads its wings in Arab World

The much expected visit from the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the rebuilding nations of the Arab Spring -- Egypt, Libya and Tunisia -- commenced on September 12, a time that was particularly significant after the recent crisis between Israel and its last remaining friends in the region, Turkey and Egypt.

Observers dubbed Erdogan's visit as the "Arab Spring tour" as Turkey, with its pro-active foreign policy, has a strong say in the region.

The timing of the long-time planned Arab Spring tour carries extra significance when Turkey's row with Israel echoed its allied Middle East country of Egypt.

Although officials confirmed Erdogan's plans to visit the three countries, it appears that plans for the controversial visit to Gaza had fallen through. The premier has for months expressed his desire to go to Gaza, whose liberation from the Israeli blockade has been at the top of Erdogan's agenda for years, but entry by a prime minister into the Gaza Strip runs a high risk of resulting in diplomatic havoc on a global scale.

In a signal that the Gaza visit will actually be left out of the tour, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters on September 11 that Libya and Tunisia were included on the itinerary, but the visit was going to remain limited to those countries.

Vendors distributed posters of the Turkish prime minister and his face looked down from giant billboards in the Cairo centre. In Egypt, he has become hugely popular because of his tough stance with Israel. He berated Israel's behaving like a "spoiled child" in reference to its attitude towards Palestinians.

The standing ovation, chants and fists thumping from the audience began before the Turkish prime minister stood to speak in Cairo's opera house on September 14. In his speech, he chided Washington and called on the administration to rethink its plan to oppose the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN General Assembly.

Earlier, in an address to Arab League foreign ministers, he said Israel would "lose in the end." He said it was an "obligation" to support Palestinians at the UN.

It may be recalled that, on September10, crowds of Egyptian people took to the streets and trashed Israel's embassy in Cairo, forcing the embassy staff to flee the country. Although the ousting of one of the last two remaining Israeli embassies in the region came from a mob attack that overpowered Egyptian security forces, the incident hurt the vital ties between Egypt and Israel in the strategic partnership concerning their stance with the other nations in the region. The last remaining Israeli embassy in the region is now located in Jordan.

A large number of Egyptian intellectuals and public persona have advised Egypt to follow Turkey's example and axe strategic proximity with Israel over the killing of five Egyptian policemen by Israeli forces on the common border between the countries last month.

In light of the arrogance, intransigence and uncompromising attitude towards Palestinians, Israel is being gradually isolated from its neighbours.

The Turkish-Israeli alliance was forged as a counterweight to the radical Arab alliance led by Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, which merged with Syria to form the United Arab Republic, and against the background of tensions between the superpowers in which Turkey's big neighbour and traditional rival, the U.S.S.R., supported Egypt.

The close relations between Turkey and Israel disappeared in May 2010 when eight Turkish nationals and an American of Turkish descent died on a Turkish ship leading a convoy of six vessels taking aid to Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip in a raid by Israeli special forces in international waters.

Israel did not apologise to Turkey but only expressed regret. The Turkish prime minister has been furious about the Israeli attitude. On September 6, Prime Minister Erdogan announced a total freeze of military and trade ties with Israel.

Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador one week before the declaration of suspension of military and commercial relations. It has been critical of Israeli policy towards the Gazans.

The heavy sanctions rang alarm bells in Israel, which risked further isolation in a region that has been unwelcoming of the Jewish state.

Commenting on Israel's increased distance with the rest of the region, Davutoglu stated that Israel was out of touch with the region and unable to perceive the changes taking place, which makes it impossible for the country to have healthy relations with its neighbours. "Isolation is inevitable for Israel; it will be even more isolated from now on," the minister added.

Egypt is a vital partner for Israel in the region, with the Rafah border between Egypt and Palestine being the gateway that allows entry into Gaza, a region ruled by Hamas that is perceived as an imminent threat by the Israeli administration.

In line with the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the countries remained allies and Egypt kept Rafah under tight military control to prevent trespassers from Gaza into both countries, but in a number of incidents, the control failed, resulting in casualties in Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was in Cairo on the same dates with Erdogan, a visit that created grounds for a meeting between Arab country leaders and Turkey. Abbas' visit announced by the state-run Egyptian news agency, MENA, included talks between the Palestinian chairman and Erdogan along with Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt's Higher Military Council.

Turkish foreign policy has been "look to the East," and it has been a major regional player. Its proactive foreign policy has brought economic dividends to the country. The visit to the three Arab countries -- Egypt, Tunisia and Libya -- which have shaken off authoritarian rule is another step to extend Turkish influence in the Arab World, and Turkey's tough line on Israel has drawn wide support from the Arab people. Egypt and Turkey are the most populous countries in the region, and if they act together they will emerge a powerful force which no one can ignore.

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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