Turkey has stepped up its efforts to become involved in the Middle East peace process by brokering a meeting in Ankara between Israeli President Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) ahead of the Israeli-Palestinian summit in Annapolis, Maryland, later this month.
The official reason for the visits is the conclusion of a framework agreement for the construction of an industrial park in the West Bank under a process known as the Ankara Forum for Economic Cooperation, which was inaugurated by Turkish President Abdullah Gul in April 2005, while he was Turkey’s foreign minister, and that seeks to bring together Israeli and Palestinian businessmen.
However, Turkey will also take the opportunity to try to forward its ambitions to be recognized by the international community as a possible mediator between the Palestinians and Israelis. Both Abbas and Peres will address the Turkish Parliament tomorrow (November 13), and each will be in the chamber to listen to the other’s address. Although they have stressed that they will not present them with any documents, Turkish diplomats have expressed the hope that Abbas and Peres will take the opportunity to hold informal discussions tomorrow (November 13) when they participate in a tripartite meeting with Gul (Zaman, November 12).
Privately, Turkish diplomats have made no secret that they hope that, if they can demonstrate their ability to host Abbas and Peres in Ankara, Washington may decide to invite Turkey to participate in the Annapolis summit.
“We shall be conducting an Annapolis rehearsal,” the Islamist daily Today’s Zaman quoted an unnamed Turkish diplomat as saying (Today’s Zaman, November 12). Last week Gul told Israeli television that Turkey would welcome an invitation to Annapolis. “If there is an expectation from us to contribute to peace, then we expect to be there,” he was reported as saying (NTV, November 12).
Ankara’s willingness to act as a mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians appears motivated at least as much by its ambitions to establish itself as a regional power as to broker a settlement between the two sides (Radikal, November 11). Nevertheless, both the Palestinians and Israelis have welcomed Turkish meditation, probably not least because each believes that Turkey holds considerable influence with the other.
“Turkey is a modern country that can play a role in the creation of economic and political peace,” Peres told the Turkish NTV news channel (NTV, November 12).
But inside Turkey, the secularist media have already begun to question the ability of the moderate Islamist government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to be equidistant from both Arabs and Israelis.
Peres arrived in Ankara as the Saudi Arabian King Abdullah was concluding a two-day official visit to Turkey. The press coverage of Abdullah’s visit highlighted the continuing secularist-Islamist divide in Turkey. The pro-AKP daily Yeni Safak focused on Abdullah’s wealth, noting that the 400-person Saudi delegation had arrived in Turkey in a fleet of nine planes, rented 117 luxury cars, taken 290 rooms in two of the country’s most expensive hotels, and that Abdullah had reportedly even brought a golden throne with him (Yeni Safak, November 11).
The secularist media was less impressed. Several secularist newspapers noted that Gul had broken with traditional Turkish protocol to greet Abdullah on his arrival at Ankara airport and later visited him at his hotel together with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Under Turkey’s protocol rulebook, the president should wait for visiting heads of state to come to the presidential palace and only visit them in their hotels if they are unwell. Abdullah also reportedly refused to visit the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the fiercely secular founder of the Turkish republic.
In contrast, Peres was met at Ankara airport by Turkish Defense Minister Vehdi Gonul and rushed straight to pay his respects at Ataturk’s mausoleum (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Vatan, Radikal, November 12).
Speaking with the Islamist daily Zaman, an unnamed Turkish diplomat defended Gul’s actions. “Saudi Arabia is a major partner with whom we want to improve ties,” he was quoted as saying (Zaman, November 12). There was no indication as to what conclusion Peres and the state of Israel should draw from the fact that they were not accorded similar treatment. But, in a country where even seemingly trivial gestures and symbols often carry enormous political weight (see EDM, November 6), for the Turkish public the implied message will have been clear.