WASHINGTON — Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and several Jewish organizations locked horns last week over his country’s relations with Hamas.
During what participants described as an otherwise friendly meeting, Gul told a small group of foreign-policy experts with American Jewish groups that Turkey was disappointed over the Jewish community’s failure to support Ankara’s efforts to change Hamas’s hard-line policy. According to several people who attended the meeting, Gul specifically referred to a decision by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party to host a top-level Hamas delegation from Damascus in February, shortly after the terrorist organization’s victory in the Palestinian Authority elections.
The Jewish participants were taken aback by Gul’s suggestion that their organizations should have defended Turkey over a diplomatic move bitterly opposed by Washington and Jerusalem, and they proceeded to voice their own objections to the meeting with Hamas in Ankara. The meeting, they pointed out, took place while Israel and America were engaged in a diplomatic full-court press to isolate Hamas on the world stage.
“Gul was making the point that [the Turks] were expecting appreciation for [the meeting with Hamas] and we stuck to our point that Hamas is a terrorist organization,” said Barry Jacobs, director of strategic studies at the American Jewish Committee.
In addition to the AJCommittee, five other groups were represented at the meeting: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and United Jewish Communities. Participants emphasized that the meeting was amicable and that the disagreement had no real impact on Turkey’s relations with Jewish organizations and their leaders. “It was a cordial and candid meeting, a free and open discussion. While we may have disagreed on some things, we view [Gul] as a friend and as a supporter of strong Turkish-Israeli relations,” said Jess Hordes, director of the ADL’s Washington office.
Given the good relations, some Jewish organizational officials said that they were puzzled by Gul’s decision to elaborate on the Hamas talks. “It was odd that he expected praise for the meeting,” said one of the Jewish organizational officials who met with the foreign minister.
Other participants speculated that Gul felt somewhat vindicated now that Jerusalem has reportedly asked Ankara to use its influence with Hamas’s leaders in Syria to secure the release of recently abducted Israeli soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit. At the meeting with Jewish officials, participants said, Gul confirmed Turkish press reports that Israel had asked Ankara to intervene.
On July 2, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent his top foreign policy advisor, Ahmet Davutoglu, on an urgent mission to Damascus. Davutoglu met with Syrian President Bashar Assad. According to some press reports, he also met with senior Hamas officials. Gul last week publicly denied reports that the envoy met with Khaled Mashal, the head of Hamas’s politburo in Damascus who Israel says masterminded the operation in which the Israeli soldier was kidnapped.
Davutoglu’s Damascus trip did not yield any immediate results. At the meeting with the Jewish officials, however, Gul reportedly attempted to use it as an illustration of the constructive role that Turkey can play by maintaining close relations with Hamas. At the February meeting in Ankara with Hamas leaders, Gul said, Turkish officials urged the heads of Hamas’s politburo to accept the international community’s three demands: that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence and endorse all past agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Jewish leaders argued that if Turkey was only interested in pressing Hamas to agree to the three conditions, it could have delivered the message through a staffer at the Turkish embassy in Damascus and that there was no need to invite the five Hamas leaders to Ankara.
At the time, Turkey’s government said that the Hamas officials were invited not by the government but by the Islamist ruling party of Turkey’s prime minister.
Last week, addressing reporters in Washington, Gul said, “What is happening between Israel and Palestine directly influences the whole region and the world, and there are new political realities on both sides.” He added: “That is why we took some steps a few months ago. We were concerned at the time that the situation would deteriorate. Unfortunately, our prediction has come true.”
At the meeting with the Jewish officials, Gul reportedly put a different spin on this argument. Turkey’s government, he reportedly said, is subject to popular pressure from its predominantly Muslim population, particularly when images of Palestinian civilian victims of Israeli violence appear on Turkish television screens. On July 9, some 50,000 Turkish demonstrators gathered in Istanbul to protest Israel’s recent offensive in Gaza. Among other slogans, they chanted, “Wake up, Muslims” and “Farewell to Sharon, Devotion to Hamas.”
Turkey is trying to strike a delicate balance by maintaining a friendly relationship with both Israel and the Palestinians, Gul said, according to meeting participants.
This Turkish posture is not new. Previous Turkish governments have attempted to serve as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians, using their close relations with both sides, said Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs who had previously served as American ambassador to Israel. “The Turks have always tried to be helpful,” said Walker, now president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “Now they also are trying to prevent a growing encroaching Iranian influence in the region. That is very important.”
Officials with Jewish groups echoed Walker’s assessment of Turkey’s motives. “There is a strong feeling in the administration, which we share, that Turkey is going to play an important role in [helping America deal with] Iraq and Iran,” said the AJCommittee’s Jacobs. Both the administration and the Jewish groups, he added, prefer not to dwell on the disagreement over Hamas.
“We made our point,” Jacobs said. “And once we did, it doesn’t do any good to anyone to keep hitting [the Turkish government] over the head.”