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Turkey’s becoming a diplomatic heavyweight in the Middle-East

Tuesday 20 February 2007

Source : The Daily Star, Lebanon, 16-02-2007

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Ankara this week provides more evidence that Turkey is fast becoming a diplomatic heavyweight in the Middle East.

Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan made noticeable progress during his talks with the Israeli premier.

Among other things, Olmert agreed to Turkish inspection of construction work near Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and made a public announcement that Israel wants peace with Syria. He also expressed support for Turkey’s ongoing attempts to build confidence between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.

Turkey’s emergence as a player that seeks to defuse crises could not come at a better time, given that Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush have ratcheted up the level of regional instability, whether intentionally or inadvertently. Although the region has made progress in terms of political participation, Bush has offset these gains by opening new zones of conflict. What the Arab world needs is stability and an “economic surge” that will create jobs everywhere, not a “troop surge” that can only boost death tolls in Iraq.

As a result of a deadly interplay between bin Laden and Bush, regional diplomacy has never been so difficult. But Turkey is coming to the fore with considerable experience in negotiating difficult terrain. Take, for example, Turkey’s decades-old territorial dispute with Syria over Alexandretta, or Hatay. Ownership of the province (arguably the intellectual birthplace of the Syrian Baath Party) was long a source of tension between the two neighbors. But during President Bashar Assad’s visit to Ankara in 2004, the dispute was resolved, or at least quietly placed on the back burner, allowing for a free trade deal and a strategic relationship between Turkey and Syria. Given this experience, Turkish leaders are well-prepared to lay the groundwork for Israeli-Syrian peace talks. Thus Olmert could not have chosen a better place to declare that Israel hopes to one day achieve a peace deal with Syria. But he would be foolish to draw any parallels between Alexandretta, which long had an ambiguous status, and the Golan Heights, which is internationally recognized as occupied Syrian territory.

This example serves to illustrate that the Turks, who are newcomers to the region’s league of diplomatic heavyweights, will need to be wary of the one factor that has seen so many potential deals undone: Israel’s tendency to flout international law. Even now, Israel is demanding that a Hamas-led unity government in Palestine meet international demands while simultaneously disregarding a long list of United Nations resolutions demanding its own withdrawal from occupied Arab territory.

The Turks will quickly learn that making progress toward Arab-Israeli peace is far more difficult than any diplomatic gains they have achieved for themselves in the region. But with a little persistence, and a bit of beginner’s luck, they may just make headway where others have tried and failed.

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