Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Defense minister hosted in Ankara as an Israeli to work with

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon's dressing down of the Turkish ambassador in Jerusalem last week was in the air but not directly referred to during Defense Minister Ehud Barak's time in Ankara on Sunday.

Instead, the 12-hour visit was characterized by pleasantries and long conversations, in a clear attempt by both countries to broadcast that the past was behind them. The Turks viewBarak as someone they can work with and believe that he can have the impact on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that they are hoping for.

The Turkish media highlighted this point by making a distinction between Barak, whom they described as the leader of the left-wing Labor Party, and Ayalon, who, some papers wrote, was a member of the "far-right" Israel Beiteinu Party.

The last time Barak visited Ankara was in February 2008, the same day that Hizbullah military commander Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus, an operation attributed by some to the Mossad. The killing came half a year after Israel bombed a nuclear reactor in northwest Syria.

Then, Israeli-Syrian relations were at an all-time low. Soon after, though, Jerusalem and Damascus launched indirect peace talks with Turkish mediation. Barak's visit at the time likely had something to do with that.

On Sunday, Barak's hosts pressed him on the Syrian issue, identifying him correctly as the Israeli cabinet member most supportive of peace talks. Whether or not such negotiations will take place is not up to Barak, though. Netanyahu will have to decide.

Barak was trailed throughout his visit by a crowd of Turkish press. At the airport, journalists and cameramen lined the runway with satellite hookups reporting his arrival live. At the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, he was again met by a pool of reporters.

After the minister laid a wreath on the tomb of the republic's first president, and as he signed the visitors' book with a plea for a "safe and secure region," one ofBarak's senior advisers marveled at the size and grandeur of the monument while noting what a great leader Atatürk was.

Israel will likely have to keep on hoping for a new secular leader like Atatürk. While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic party is predicted to get only 33 percent of the vote in the 2011 elections - more than 10% less than his party received in 2005 - he is still likely to come out first and win a third term.

Within the Turkish cabinet, there are believed to be a number of ministers favorable to Israel. Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, Barak's official host on Sunday, who called the Israeli Embassy on Friday and asked how to translate some Turkish words into Hebrew, is perceived in Jerusalem as the "Israel lobbyist" in the Turkish government. He has tried over the past year, unsuccessfully, to restore warm and full diplomatic and military ties, one of the goals ofBarak's visit.

His other meeting, with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, lasted three-and-a-half-hours, more than double the time originally allotted. Davutoglu is the foreign policy architect within theTurkish cabinet, and is a close associate of Erdogan.

Members of Barak's delegation said they believe Erdogan will tone down his criticism of Israel. While he is unlikely to begin supporting Israel, the officials said that the countries could maintain good working relations regardless.

The Turkish dailies Sunday were filled with articles about Barak's visit. One column in Today's Zaman, an English-language paper affiliated with the Islamists, said that Israel could no longer rely on maintaining ties with Turkey just on adefense level, and could no longer depend on American-Jewish groups like AIPAC to influence the US Congress.

Instead, the column recommended that Israel renew peace talks with Syria and work to improve the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

The hope in Ankara is that Barak will be able to deliver the goods.

This is also the understanding within Israel. As long as Erdogan is prime minister, the most Israel can hope for are lukewarm ties.

"The moment there are peace talks, this will change," explained one Israeli official.

The only question left is whether Netanyahu will agree to hold those talks.


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