At Middle East Report, Yüksel Taşkın from Marmara University in Istanbul writes:
Under the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey is carving out a greater role for itself in Middle Eastern affairs. Since 2008, Turkey has sought the role of Middle East intermediary in trying to broker a peace agreement between Israel and Syria and to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis. This more independent and assertive foreign policy has put Turkey increasingly at odds with two of its long-standing allies, Israel and the United States. A crucial ally for the US in its war on Iraq, Turkey now refuses to comply with US policy on Iran. The Turkish government also has become more outspoken against Israeli violations of Palestinian rights in the West Bank and Gaza, placing it on a diplomatic collision course with Israel. Three months after the Israeli assault on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid vessel, the Obama administration is reportedly warning Turkey that if its relations with Israel do not improve, and if Turkey does not temper its opposition to US policy on Iran, Congress may halt arms sales to Turkey.
The deterioration in relations between Turkey and its Western allies has led many commentators to conclude that there has been a decidedly eastward shift in Turkish foreign policy. In fact, Turkey’s positions have inspired many journalists and policy analysts to postulate that Turkey is pursuing an “Islamic” agenda that entails a deliberate distancing from the West. This hypothesis has seemed plausible to some because the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, by its Turkish acronym) is rooted in the banned Islamist parties of the 1980s and 1990s. The historian Bernard Lewis, for instance, speculated that in a decade Turkey might resemble the Islamic Republic of Iran. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman opined that “Turkey’s Islamist government [is] seemingly focused not on joining the European Union but the Arab League — no, scratch that, on joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel.” Similar interpretations emanate from the secular establishment in Turkey. Oktay Ekşi, a columnist for the Hurriyet newspaper, argues that the AKP’s concerted efforts to attain Turkish accession to the EU were a ploy to gain “support in the West to overcome the secularists.” Some analysts have even suggested that the AKP is pursuing a “neo-Ottomanist” agenda, seeking to claim the mantle of the last great Islamic empire. Johns Hopkins University professor (and former Bush administration official) Eliot Cohen wrote, “A combination of Islamist rule, resentment at exclusion from Europe and a neo-Ottomanist ideology that envisions Turkey as a great power in the Middle East have made Turkey a state that is often plainly hostile not only to Israel but to American aims and interests.”
Such analyses misinterpret the AKP government’s objective, which is not to break with Turkey’s traditional cooperation with the US and EU but to increase Turkey’s relative autonomy vis-à-vis those powers. Rather than a rupture with the past, Turkey’s new approach marks a change in tactics in pursuit of the same goal.