June 2, 2010 / 4:25 PM / in 8 years

Israel tension boosts Turkey's popularity with Arabs

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Ankara’s diplomatic confrontation with Israel over the bloody seizure of an aid ship bound for Gaza has boosted Turkey’s popularity among Arabs who long to see their own governments show similar resolve.

From Cairo to Kuwait, Turkey’s red flag has flown across the Arab world in a show of support for its response to the Israeli raid in which nine activists, at least three of them Turks, were killed as they tried to break the sea blockade of the Palestinian enclave.

Ankara’s reaction, including the withdrawal of its Tel Aviv ambassador, has shown up the few Arab governments that also have diplomatic ties with Israel. These include Egypt, which was already under fire for helping Israel enforce the Gaza blockade.

Conscious of Arab and wider Muslim criticism of its role in enforcing the embargo, Cairo opened the Rafah crossing on Wednesday. It is the only gateway to the Gaza Strip not fully controlled by Israel, which has imposed a tight blockade on the Hamas Islamist-run territory.

“There is no question that the popularity of the Turkish government is rising in the Arab street,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, a prominent Saudi political writer and analyst. “This is a natural result considering the impotence of Arab governments.”

Predominantly Muslim Turkey, a NATO member and once a close regional ally of Israel, said on Wednesday it would only normalize ties with the Jewish state once it lifts the blockade.

In Cairo this week, Egyptian protesters backed Turkey while criticizing their own government. “They have blockaded! They have sold out!” chanted some of the protesters.

“The Turks have done more to show that this blockade has to be lifted than the people sitting up there,” said Cairo protester Madiha Kurkur, pointing at Egypt’s foreign ministry.

ERDOGAN POPULARITY RISES

Already popular for championing the Palestinian cause, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has further enhanced his status through calls for the Jewish state to be punished for the sea raid. The U.N. Security Council has condemned the deaths.

“The time has come for the international community to say ‘enough’,” said Erdogan in a speech on Tuesday broadcast across the Arab world by satellite channels including Al Jazeera.

Arab media last year lauded Erdogan, leader of an Islamist-leaning party, for publicly taking Israeli President Shimon Peres to task over Israel’s three-week Gaza offensive.

Turkey’s democracy and robust economy are also admired by Arabs critical of their own rulers and levels of poverty.

For Turks, a century after they lost their Ottoman imperial grip on the region, support among the Arabs is an asset.

As its bid to join the European Union has had setbacks, Ankara has sought to deepen ties with neighboring Muslim countries.

Improved relations with Syria have led to the activation of a free trade agreement that in recent years has caused the countries’ trade balance to balloon in Ankara’s favor.

Turkey’s confrontation with Israel this week has reinforced a view among Arab commentators that Ankara aims to establish itself alongside Israel and Iran as one of three states with real sway in a region of weaker Arab governments.

“This triangle is the one that will define the fate of the region,” said Hatem Abdel Qadir, a West Bank-based official in the Palestinian Fatah movement.

Some see Turkey seeking to exploit the Gaza flotilla incident and the sensitivities surrounding the Palestinian cause to win more popularity among Arabs and Muslims.

Lebanese political scientist As‘ad AbuKhalil, writing on his blog The Angry Arab, said: “I feel that Turkey is on a campaign to win Arab public opinion.”

Additional reporting by Reuters reporters in Damascus, Cairo, Beirut, Riyadh and Ramallah; editing by Alastair Macdonald

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