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World News

Turkish PM row damages Mideast position short-term

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s haranguing of Israel’s president at an international forum may initially damage Turkey’s position as a Middle East mediator, but help strengthen its regional influence in the longer term.

When Shimon Peres shook his finger in Erdogan’s direction in defending Israel’s Gaza offensive, he may not have reckoned with the Turkish leader’s renowned sensitivity to personal reproach. Erdogan’s reply, when asked how he would act if missiles fell on Istanbul, was certainly not scripted, but got to the point.

“President Peres you are older than me and your voice is very loud,” he told the Israeli leader. “The reason for you raising your voice is the psychology of guilt.

“I will not raise my voice that much. When it comes to killing you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you hit and killed children on the beaches.” Peres, sitting next to him, could scarcely have missed the full impact of his words.

Thousands went to greet Erdogan on his return to Istanbul, waving Turkish and Palestinian flags. The crowd praised him for standing up to what many Turks said was unfair treatment at the Davos World Economic Forum and for telling Israel what many Turks were increasingly feeling about the Gaza offensive.

“For many Turks, not only his own constituency the AK Party, he will be seen as someone who honored Turkey. Domestically at least in the near period it will strengthen his image and credibility,” said Cengiz Candar, a leading Turkish commentator and Middle East expert.

Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country with a secular system, is in a unique position in the region because it has close ties with Israel and Arab countries.

“Erdogan may take his place in diplomatic history as the Turkish leader who gave a lesson to Israel’s president; but is Turkey going to benefit from it? That is the question,” asked Radikal newspaper columnist Murat Yetkin.

“Was not Turkey’s most important feature its ability to talk to Israel, Syria and Iran all at the same time?,” he added.

Peres said he had spoken to Erdogan by telephone after the debate, in which United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League leader Amr Moussa also participated -- a sign perhaps that Israel still valued Turkey’s role.

“I don’t see this as a personal or national problem,” Peres said. “The relations can remain as they are. My respect (for him) hasn’t changed. It was an exchange of views and views are views.”

Erdogan’s drive to build bridges with the Middle East underlines Turkey’s difficult balancing act. A NATO member which aspires to join the European Union, Muslim Turkey has positioned itself as a mediator in a tough neighborhood.

In the Arab world Erdogan’s words have been welcomed after criticism over their own leaders’ inability to stop Israel’s offensive, in which Israeli forces killed more than 1,300 Palestinians. Israel lost 10 soldiers and 3 civilians.

UNCOMFORTABLE ROLE?

“With one stroke, maybe not intentional, Erdogan has become the hero of the Arab world. He has become the voice of the Arab street in the absence of any credible Arab leader,” said Candar.

“It’s clear that Turkey will be an influential player in the Middle East game, in what framework this will happen remains to be seen. It could be an uncomfortable role it plays.”

Several thousands supporters of Hamas, the militant Islamist group running Gaza and the focus of Israel’s offensive, rallied across the Gaza Strip partially in support of Erdogan, whom they described as a “hero and a brave man.”

Analysts said relations between Turkey and Israel were likely to suffer in the short term as well as hurt Ankara’s efforts to play a bigger role in helping negotiate peace because Israel would no longer view Turkey as a neutral player.

Turkey’s government helped convince the Islamic Hamas group, to declare a unilateral ceasefire and cease the rocket attacks that Israel cited in launching its offensive. The government also chaired indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria and has helped relay messages between the West and Iran over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.

“It (row) will have a bad impact on Turkish-Israeli relations, which are already strained, and will have a deteriorating effect on Israeli and Syrian negotiations. It might also be difficult for Turkey to play a role in Gaza,” said Patrick Seale, a British expert on the Middle East.

Erdogan has come under frequent scrutiny for seeking to boost his country’s influence in the Middle East and at home has been criticized for appearing to side with Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the U.S.

Previous Turkish secular governments have largely shunned the Arab world, favoring closer ties with the secular West.

Turkish opposition parties will try to portray the row with Israel as a further proof of the AK Party’s attempts to turn Turkey toward the Middle East rather than the West.

The AK Party and the opposition have battled for years over the role of religion and last year the AK Party narrowly avoided being closed down by the court for anti-secular activities.

“From a political point of view Erdogan’s reaction was wrong -- even stupid... But somebody had to speak out on Israel and I am glad Erdogan did,” said Mustafa Aydin, a 49-year-old notary in Istanbul.

Additional reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Ralph Boulton

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