ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's plan to flex its naval muscles in the eastern Mediterranean risks being perceived as an over-reaction in Ankara's dispute with former ally Israel and as an assertion of regional power that could alienate even its new Arab admirers.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's ploy may fuel Western unease over Turkey's reliability as a NATO partner and its penchant for actions designed to court popularity in the Muslim world.
Turkey's mix of economic growth and secular democracy under an Islamist government has fascinated Arab countries eager for a new model, but even those in the throes of popular uprisings may feel qualms if Ankara starts throwing its military weight about.
Stung by Israel's refusal to apologize over last year's killing of nine Turks during an Israeli commando raid on an aid ship bound for Gaza, Erdogan said Turkish warships would be seen in waters where Israel's navy operates, raising the risk of a clash between the once close allies.
Bolstered by a booming economy and unprecedented political stability at home, Turkey has seen its "soft power" rise in the region under Erdogan's AK Party, rooted in political Islam.
Conservative on social and religious issues and liberal on economic ones, the AK government has cemented business ties in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa and pursued a foreign policy of "zero problems with neighbors" -- a policy buffeted by the dispute with Israel and tensions with Syria.
But threats to deploy warships show that Turkey, a prickly NATO member and European Union candidate, is now tempted to use its military power to push its interests in a changing region.
"Erdogan is taking a very aggressive stance to assert Turkey's status as a regional power instead of using the soft power we have seen until recently," said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based security analyst.
"There is a sense in the AK Party that Turkey is a major regional power and that the Mediterranean is its sphere of influence. But NATO and the West increasingly see Turkey as a loose cannon," he said.
"Turkey played its cards well in the past when it had good relations with everyone, but now it is playing them very badly."
Jenkins said non-Arab Turkey behaving like a neighborhood bully would be regarded with grave concern by Arabs, who were subjects of the Ottoman empire for centuries.
"The Arabs distinguish between a Turkey that stands up to Israel and engages with them and a Turkey that wants to dominate the entire region," Jenkins said.
Omer Taspinar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Turkey might be using Israel as a convenient punching bag following a series of diplomatic setbacks and domestic failures, including the Kurdish problem.
Turkey's ties with Syria, a former friend, are near breaking point -- President Bashar al-Assad has defied Turkish calls for him to end a bloody crackdown on protesters. Shi'ite Iran, another close ally of Turkey, has reacted frostily to Ankara's decision to host a NATO early-warning radar system.
"Turkey is going through a difficult period and Israel has given Erdogan the chance to demonstrate he is a strong leader in a strong country," Taspinar said.
"Turkey has experienced a period of economic growth and political stability and it feels very powerful. But they don't realize there is a price to pay for this saber-rattling."
A larger presence of Turkish vessels in the eastern Mediterranean would be unsettling Greece and for the divided island of Cyprus as it eyes oil drilling exploration.
Turkey says oil deals granted by the Greek Cypriot government, which represents the island in the European Union, are illegal as the borders of Cyprus remain undetermined while Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots pursue reunification talks.
Turkey and Greece, also a NATO member, have a history of territorial disputes, and their navies were involved in a standoff in 1996 over an uninhabited islet in the Aegean Sea.
BALANCE OF FORCES
Turkey is NATO's second biggest military and its navy is considered to be far superior to that of Israel, although the Jewish state is widely assumed to have submarines that carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
Israel has expanded patrols in the eastern Mediterranean to enforce the Gaza blockade it says is needed to prevent arms smuggling to the Palestinian group Hamas and to deter any Lebanese Hezbollah militant attack on offshore gas platforms.
Few Turkish analysts believe Turkey is planning to send frigates in open defiance of Israel's blockade of Gaza, which the United Nations has declared legal, but their mere presence in international waters not far from Gaza could risk a clash.
It seems implausible that Turkey, as a NATO member, could get involved in actual hostilities with Israel.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Wednesday that the Turkish-Israeli relationship was a "bilateral matter" and urged the two to find ways to ease tensions.
However, Erdogan's words that Turkish naval bases have "the power and opportunity to provide escorts," suggesting that Ankara could put a future aid flotilla under its protection, set off alarm bells.
"They have created the conditions for another flotilla to challenge the blockade," said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
"What is the Turkish navy going to do if another flotilla decides to go in? They would have to keep their promise and escort the flotilla. This puts the U.S. administration in a terrible position."
President Barack Obama's administration is keen to smooth ties between its two most important allies in the Middle East and U.S. diplomats are working in private to heal the rift.
Some Turkish and Israeli analysts say that Turkey's motive is not to seek a showdown with Israel over Gaza, but to build up a naval presence between Cyprus and Israel to create a sense of menace and scare investors away from the gas fields there.
Turkey has been chafing at Cypriot-Israeli energy deals, and the tensions with Israel could enable Ankara to send a message without making explicit threats.
"Turkey's emphasis on freedom of navigation is also connected to the assessment that in the eastern Mediterranean there are natural gas deposits beyond what have already been discovered," said Gallia Lindenstrauss of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Sinan Ulgen, from the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, said Erdogan, known as a temperamental leader, is driven by public opinion.
Erdogan, who won a third consecutive term in office last June, has become a hero among Muslims for his stance against Israel and in favor of the Palestinians.
"It is very dangerous for a country when it starts to believe its own propaganda," Jenkins said.