Reverberations Still Echoing After Hamas Official Visits Turkey

Israeli and Turkish officials say relations between the two countries are back on track following a strong disagreement over the recent visit to Ankara of a top-ranking Hamas leader, but repercussions from the trip are continuing to be felt both inside and outside Turkey. Breaking ranks with the American, European and Israeli policy of refusing to meet with Hamas until it recognizes Israel’s right to exist and denounces terrorism, Ankara hosted the group’s top political leader, Khaled Meshaal, for a one-day visit on Feb. 16. Meshaal, who lives in exile in Damascus, met with Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, and other Foreign Ministry officials.

The visit led to a swift and angry denunciation from Israel. “How would you feel if we got together with Abdullah Ocalan?” Israeli government spokesmen Ra’anan Gissin said during an interview on Turkish television, referring to the imprisoned leader the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, an outlawed Kurdish militant group that fought a bloody war against Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, called Gissin’s statement “totally baseless and wrong,” adding in a released statement, “We relayed our discomfort and dissatisfaction with this statement to Israel.”

An initial attempt to smooth Israel’s feathers failed when the Israeli ambassador to Turkey, Pinchas Avivi, refused to attend a Turkish Foreign Ministry briefing on the Hamas meeting. The next day, though, Avivi went to the Ankara headquarters of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, where he met with top party leaders to discuss the future of the Turkish-Israeli relationship. “After a few days of a mini-crisis, things are returning to their normal track and everything is continuing as normal,” Avivi told JTA, speaking by telephone from his office in Ankara. “I am convinced that this will not lead to anything else.”

But even one week after Meshaal’s visit, the debate in Turkey over the wisdom of the trip continued unabated, with the Turkish media filled columns overwhelmingly critical of the government’s decision to host the Hamas leader and accusing the leaders of the AKP of inviting Meshaal over the objections of career diplomats at the Foreign Ministry. The AKP is descended from the reformist wing of Turkey’s political Islam movement and the party’s leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, caused a crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations a year ago when he on several occasions referred to Israel’s actions against the Palestinians as “state terror.”

“A diplomatic blunder!” Cengiz Candar, a leading Turkish political analyst, wrote about the visit in a column in the English-language daily The New Anatolian.

“Turkey, naturally, is not obliged to obtain permission from Israel or the U.S. in formulating and following a Middle East policy of its own. However, when it comes to an extremely sensitive, complicated and murky issue such as the Palestinian question, it is obviously a necessity to take into consideration the international balance of forces,” Candar wrote.

The Meshaal visit was also strongly criticized in the United States, where both members of Congress and leaders of Jewish organizations — who have frequently acted as the main lobbyists on Turkey’s behalf in Washington — expressed their deep dismay over Ankara’s actions.

“The meetings send the wrong signal that Ankara is willing to deal with a terrorist organization whose platform call for the destruction of Israel and is in direct contrast to the U.S., E.U. and international communities’ desired goals of lasting peace and security in the Middle East,” Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), co-chairman of the Congressional Turkey Caucus and the Congressional Study Group on Turkey, said in a statement.

“Ankara’s decision to give Hamas ‘undeserved legitimacy,’ ” he continued, “is shocking considering that Turkey has been victimized by terrorist organizations like the PKK.”

Meanwhile, leaders of the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith International held a meeting in Washington with Turkey’s ambassador to the United States to convey their dissatisfaction with Meshaal’s visit.

“Hosting Hamas, which continues to call for the destruction of Israel, a friend and partner of Turkey, was a tragic mistake,” said David Harris, executive director of the AJCommittee. “Anything that confers legitimacy on Hamas before it fulfills the requirements of the Quartet will only undermine prospects for peace, in which Turkey has invested so heavily.”

A top Jewish official in Washington said the Meshaal visit has left many on Capitol Hill scratching their heads.

“There is a lot of dissatisfaction here in Washington. The question we are all asking is what did Turkey get out of this?” said the official, who asked not to be named.

“It was counterproductive, both as foreign policy and regarding relations with groups that are very important for Turkey,” the official added, pointing out that after his meetings in Turkey, Meshaal continued on to Iran, where he was warmly received by the controversial Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Turkish officials, though, denied that the Hamas leader’s visit was a blunder. According to a senior Foreign Ministry official, the visit was used as an opportunity to pass to Hamas the message that they cannot resort to violence and that they must recognize Israel’s right to exist.

“We told them that there is no second chance to make first impressions,” the official said.

“It is a process that will continue for some time, but the important thing is to give them clear and strong messages and we are planning to keep the channels open with both sides. The alternative is chaos, complications and instability,” the official added.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described the Meshaal visit not so much as a blunder as an outgrowth of the current Turkish government’s desire to improve its relations with its Arab neighbors and to strengthen its role as a mediator in the Middle East. But he warned that the Turkish approach might be misguided.

“The role that AKP says it wants to play by this trip, of being an interlocutor, is actually being damaged by this trip because the Israelis are now saying that the Turks are not an neutral actor anymore,” he said. “The more they continue along this line, the more the Israelis will see them as being sympathetic to Hamas.”

Added Cagaptay: “It will be very difficult to mend the bridges if we see more steps along this line, of the AKP government’s sympathizing with Hamas and its position.”

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