18 November 2007

2190) "Exclusive" Interview With Turkish President Abdullah Gul

By Ben Kaspit In The Presidential Palace In Ankara On 5 November
"The Syrian Track Isn't Dead", NRG Ma'ariv, 9 Nov 2007, Tel Aviv, in Hebrew

The only remaining bastion fell last month. The absolute symbol of Turkish secularism, the Cankaya Palace, the presidential compound that stretches over 500 dunams of green hillside in central Ankara, is also now under the control of the Turkish Justice and Development Party [JDP], which is better known as the Islamic Party (although its leaders reject this description), and which has been ruling Turkey for more than five years.

Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, former foreign minister, and one of the party's founders, hosted Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in this palace a few days ago. Shim'on Peres will be arriving there on Sunday. Abu-Mazin [Mahmud Abbas] will be going at the same time.

Saudi King Abdallah, Jordanian King Abdallah, and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora are on the way. The pilgrimage by all the region's leaders to the Turkish president's palace demonstrates more than ever before Turkey's growing strength as an established regional power, a kind of responsible adult in a region swarming with impetuous and dangerous kids.

There were many gloomy predictions after the Islamists took over Turkey. There was talk about Turkey being swept towards extremist Islam, a danger to relations with Israel, the fall of another forward Western outpost, and the end of democracy. All these predictions have been proved wrong. The opposite has happened on the ground. To begin with, the JDP opened up the Turkish economy, embarked on a dramatic privatization campaign, stabilized the currency, and led the country to a tremendous economic boom that brought it another sweeping victory in the last elections and the possibility of finally sending a representative to the presidential palace.

In the diplomatic sphere, there has been another surprise. Relations with Israel have not been harmed, but have perhaps even been upgraded. Turkey's regional standing has grown stronger. The Turks are today mediating in quite a few Middle Eastern crises and are regarded as a moderate bridging force between Islam and the West, Israel and Syria, and all sane elements in the region. In his previous job as foreign minister, Abdullah Gul personally invested time and energy in trying to create a secret negotiating track between Israel and Syria. He was here and there quite a number of times, and passed on passing on messages and put forward proposals and ideas to host fast-track negotiations between the two countries in Ankara.

The end is known. Negotiations did not take off, but the Air Force's aircraft did.

What now? "It's a pity," says Gul in an exclusive interview with Ma'ariv. "So many opportunities were missed between Syria and yourselves - really good opportunities to end the conflict."

Who is to blame? Gul replies with elegant evasion: "I don't want to blame either side. Everyone knows that the issue between you and Syria is far less complex than other issues. It can be finished quickly. We made our position clear to both sides, and to the Americans, too."

Preferred to Speak Turkish

The interview with the Turkish president took place on Monday this week in the presidential palace in Ankara. Gul, 56, an impressive man in a dark suit with graying hair and a well-groomed moustache, was surrounded by a skilled team of aides who speak polished English, but he himself, contrary to the earlier arrangement, chose to speak Turkish. Some of the issues in the interview were too sensitive, which is why he chose to speak his own language.

[Kaspit] You have sat down with Al-Asad many times, including here in the palace recently. Last March, Olmert also asked you to examine the sincerity of his intentions regarding peace with Israel. Were you persuaded that Al-Asad really wants peace, or that he just wants a negotiating process in order to improve his standing?

[Gul] My assessment is that his desire for peace is a real one.

[Kaspit] Is he prepared to pay the price of price? Is he prepared to remove the leaders of the terrorist organizations from Damascus, and put an end to the alliance with Iran?

[Gul] I don't want to speak in Al-Asad's name. It's obvious to me, and to him, that the bloodletting between the sides has to stop. We are investing a big effort here. Peace between you and Syria will not only have an effect on you and them, but on the entire region and the whole world. In order for that to happen, each side has to do its share, each has to make concessions, and everyone should be playing a helpful role, not a destructive one. I expect all the sides to support this effort. In the meantime, the work and the effort are continuing. It isn't dead yet. But there is a certain reality. Every time that I speak about this matter publicly, I say that we must not abandon the Israeli-Syrian track. The Syrians must not be left out of Annapolis. The conference should include the Syrians and the Syrian issue. We should be going for a comprehensive peace, not just a partial one between Israel and the Palestinians. The Syrian issue should be an integral part of the efforts. Look, we have an 800-km border with the Syrians. All the peoples here - you, them, us - have a common history and many things in common. A comprehensive peace in the region could bring tremendous benefit to all sides.

[Kaspit] Given that, how did you receive the Israeli operation in Syria, and the nighttime penetration of Turkish airspace? Were you satisfied with Olmert's apology?

[Gul] The apology came late, but it's good that it did. A foreign aircraft from a friendly country flying in your airspace calls for swift and precise explanations. It's imperative. It can be interpreted in the region in a distorted way. I think that the unauthorized penetration of our territory without prior notification was a big mistake on your part. It's not a simple matter. But from our point of view, the apology has been accepted and the matter is closed.

[Kaspit] Do you actually know what happened there? Do you know what Israel attacked in Syria?

[Gul] Our interest and concern was about our airspace, not that of the Syrians.

[Kaspit] Nevertheless, there have been reports all around the world about a secret Syrian nuclear project right under your noses and under Israel's nose. Does that worry you?

[Gul] (Slightly ill at ease, laughs, then composes himself) I told you what was of concern to us. All the rest belongs to international law and should be dealt with internationally by the international community, in the appropriate frameworks. That is why they exist. If there are such reports, they should be raised and examined in the appropriate forums. [end Gul]

Tiptoeing Between Mines

Gul's words are the edge of the Turkish iceberg. Clearly, the Turks discovered the existence of the Syrian nuclear plan with horror. It clearly worries them, perhaps even more than the Israeli penetration of their airspace. The Turks brought the Syrians to their knees during the territorial dispute that formerly raged between the two countries, and they did the same after it as well, when they demanded the extradition of the Kurdish underground (PKK) leader. In all these cases, Al-Asad (the father) was the first to blink. That is how it is when facing you is a state with a huge, modern army, 75 million inhabitants, a strong economy, a determined regime, and dominant army. Israel cannot afford to talk Turkish with the Syrians; but on the other hand, it permits itself to speak Israeli to them from time to time. In other words, it uses the Air Force. The Turks do their best to tiptoe between these mines without stepping on them. Gul somehow extracted himself from the questions on the Syrian issue without giving away his real feelings.

[Kaspit] You are threatening to invade northern Iraq in order to tackle the Kurdish terrorist centres that are operating against you.

How close is that invasion?

[Gul] Turkey has no aspirations to conquer parts of another country and we respect the sovereignty and integrity of Iraq. We have been fighting terrorism for a long time. The Kurdish terror began here, in our country, and unfortunately, due to the situation in Iraq and the weakness of its central government, they took up positions there and are now striking at us from there. So we have to fight them not just inside Turkey, but also in the places outside where they come from.

[Kaspit] There have been reports in Turkey that Israelis are assisting the Kurdish rebels. Do you believe that?

[Gul] All kinds of newspapers have reported about that here. Your government has completely denied it.

[Kaspit] Do you believe our government on this?

[Gul] Yes. We are focusing on the effort to fight this terrorism, and we may be forced to act against it in its bases. The Iraqis are suffering badly from terrorism, but they still don't have the capability to wage a real war against it. Our task is to fight the terror that is hitting us, and we will do that as required. [end Gul]

That sounds familiar, I say to him, because we are in the same situation in Lebanon and Gaza. We also have a terrorism that started at home and trickled out, and which is striking at us endlessly without provocations on our part in spite of the fact that we are on the internationally defined and recognized line.

[Kaspit] Why don't you recognize Israel's right to invade Gaza or strike at terror in south Lebanon?

[Gul] These are two different things. We are not occupying another people. Our border is clear and recognized. We have a fight against internal terror that is using the territory of other countries. But don't misunderstand me: The attacks and violence against Israel, including the Qassam attacks, are unacceptable to us. We come out against that all the time and explicitly.

[Kaspit] But I don't see why our two cases are different. In Lebanon, we are on a clear and recognized international line, just like you.

The same is true in Gaza. Why can you invade northern Iraq while we cannot go into Gaza or south Lebanon?

[Gul] I repeat: The terrorist attacks against you, against civilians, the Qassam missiles - all these are disgraceful and unacceptable. We also strongly condemned the suicide attacks.

[Kaspit] So do we or don't we have the right to go after the attackers in the territories?

[Gul] In the fight against terror, each one has rights. However, there is international law. You have to act in accordance with it.

Look at us, for example. Turkey has the power to destroy the whole of northern Iraq, and not leave a stone standing. So does that mean that we will use it? Obviously not. You have to fight terror on its own, in accordance with the law. It is obvious that you have the right to do that.

[Kaspit] Are you planning to take part in the Annapolis conference?

[Gul] No official invitations have been issued yet, but if we are invited, we will go. I believe that it would be right and useful for us to go and try to be of assistance. We are in a regional situation where we have influence over all the sides, and the most should be made of that.

[Kaspit] Will you perhaps use that influence in order to exert pressure on Iran? Is it acceptable to you that nuclear weapons should be in Ahmadinezhad's hands?

[Gul] We are opposed to the introduction of nuclear weapons into the region. Period. We are monitoring all these developments closely and with concern. Nuclear weaponry will not help stability and will not provide anyone with security. On this matter, we are in contact with the Iranians, talking with them openly and candidly, and telling them our views. On the other hand, we are convinced that this matter should be resolved by diplomatic means.

[Kaspit] The Iranians are not talking in diplomatic terms. They are talking openly about the destruction of Israel and wiping it off the map. How would you feel if they were to talk that way about Turkey and were striving for nuclear weapons?

[Gul] Don't misunderstand me. We obviously oppose these statements. I think that it is superfluous Iranian rhetoric which is mainly designed for internal purposes. In all my statements, I say that these are superfluous things and a wrong approach. Quite obviously, if I was in Olmert's place, I would be worried and wouldn't be happy to hear these kinds of things said against Turkey. [end Gul]

Relations between Turkey and Israel have been experiencing a late honeymoon in recent years. A particularly impressive Turkish ambassador, Nemik Tan, has been sent to Tel Aviv. Tan worked with Gul and is regarded as one of his closest confidants. Serving in Ankara until recently was Pini Avivi, who has now been replaced by Gabi Levi, who was born in Turkey, and who is receiving an attentive ear in the corridors of Turkish ruling circles. Relations between the IDF and the Turkish Army have long gone beyond mere friendship and are closer to a strategic alliance. The Turkish chief of staff was supposed to visit Israel at the end of October. The visit was put off due to the tension with Syria. The Turkish chief of staff sent an apology to Chief of Staff Ashkenazi. The visit will take place soon.

The Turks generally maintain an outwardly cool air, and always come out strongly against Israeli operations or problematic Israeli statements, but in private the situation is completely different.

Tzipi Livni recently held an excellent meeting with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (but at the press conference, Erdogan kept up a gloomy appearance). Olmert met Erdogan in London two weeks ago. In the course of the meeting, Erdogan handed Olmert the report of the Turkish team that examined the digging at the Mugrabi Gate. The Turks played the matter down and are keeping a low profile. Israel is grateful.

The Turks also lowered the profile in connection with the attack in Syria. What is important for them is peace and quiet, appearances, while behind the scenes they continue working energetically to try to bring Damascus and Jerusalem together, and to become a bridge between the sides. They have the ability to do that, they have everyone's respect, and have proved their seriousness. Only one problem remains: Israeli cooperation. Jerusalem is used to receiving instructions from Washington, and it is not yet clear where the wind is blowing there.

[Kaspit] Are you satisfied with the relations with Israel? When the Islamic Party came to power, they lamented the special closeness between the two countries.

[Gul] We are not an Islamic party. We are a party of justice and development, and I was one of its founders. We have been in power for five years, and relations, if you look back, have been constantly improving. We have advanced them at all levels, and they are continuing to improve all the time, including at the highest levels.

As a minister, I visited Israel many times. Prime Minister Erdogan visits and meets with leaders all the time. Now Shim'on Peres is coming here in order to congratulate me on taking up my post, and we are going to exploit his visit in order to convene the Ankara Forum, to sit down together with Abu-Mazin and Peres. They will also address parliament.

It is very important that all this is taking place before Annapolis.

We shall try to advance and help the process as much as possible.

Look at who is coming here this month before Annapolis - almost everyone - and you will realize that we have the ability to be of assistance: Siniora, Al-Asad, Peres, Abu-Mazin, the Saudi Abdallah, and the Jordanian Abdallah. They are all from this region, and they should all be sitting down and meeting to solve the problems together. I have spoken and will speak to all of them about the peace process and I will use all my influence in this sphere. Everyone should try to be helpful and realize the magnitude of the opportunity.

[Kaspit] Do you believe Olmert? Do you think that his intentions to go all the way are genuine?

[Gul] I do not want to get into your domestic politics. There is currently a great opportunity to achieve peace, which will be an asset to everyone. This has to be understood and an effort has to be made. That is all we are requesting. All the leaders realize this and they all want to take part. Goodwill is needed.

[Kaspit] Are you sure that everyone bears goodwill? The Americans, for example, have been torpedoing the negotiations between Israel and Syria - the ones you are trying to advance - for years.

[Gul] I do not want to award points to other countries. In the Middle East, there is realism and also a situation on the ground. I am sure that this situation also bothers the Americans. You see that Condoleezza Rice has been coming here virtually every week and how much energy she is putting into it. It is quite clear that they view this issue as being of unparalleled importance and are giving it priority. [end Gul]

"There Was No Genocide"

Of all these issues, there is one that ruffles the Turks most, shattering their mental equilibrium, and generating almost uncontrollable anger: the Armenian holocaust in World War 1. The US House Foreign Affairs Committee is now seeking to have a resolution passed in Congress that will recognize these events, which the Turks are responsible for, as "genocide." The Turks have been driven crazy by this. Also involved in this mess is Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League in the United States and a well-known Jewish Zionist leader, who expressed support for the move and later sent a letter of clarification to the Turks (but did not retract).

Israel, though, is playing a totally different game. Whether or not there was an Armenian holocaust, most of Israel's leaders prefer to put the Israeli interest in Turkey ahead of any rummaging about in holocausts (so long as it is not the Jewish holocaust, of course).

Last month, an Israeli parliamentary delegation (MKs Yisra'el Hason, Avigdor Yitzhaqi, Yuval Steinitz, and others) visited Washington.

Members of the delegations advocated to all members of congress that it would be better to drop the Armenian issue and leave the Turks alone. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan was in Israel, met with the country's leaders, and received (secret) clarifications from them that Israel stands by Turkey's side on the matter.

[Kaspit] Are you satisfied with the Israeli assistance on the Armenian issue with regard to the move in Congress?

[Gul] We appreciate the efforts made by Peres and Olmert on this issue. There are a number of Jewish organizations in the United States, and there is also Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, whose behaviour has disappointed us. We didn't expect this from them and we are hoping that the issue will drop from the agenda.

[Kaspit] There is a lot of evidence about what happened to the Armenian people during the war - the mass deportation that led to the slaughter and murder of more than 1 million people. What is that if not genocide? Perhaps it would just be better to admit it and apologize?

[Gul] That is simply not correct. Turkey has no tradition of genocide; we don't have such a character and we did not do it. You should know this better than anybody. For after the expulsion from Spain more than 500 years ago, the Jews were dispersed all over the world. We all know what happened to those who escaped to Europe. They were exterminated and murdered in the Shoah. Those who came to the Ottoman Empire enjoyed prosperity and nothing untoward happened to them.

It wasn't only in regard to the Jews that we acted this way, but with all the minorities. All of them in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed tolerance and fairness. That is the historic truth. When we ruled Jerusalem, the city enjoyed peace, quiet, and harmony between the three religions. It is not the Turkish people's pastime to murder other peoples. There was a terrible world war, things happened, and measures had to be taken, but there was no genocide.


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