Eyeless in Gaza

I know, it was a bit hard to swallow for my friends in Israel: A Turkish dignitary visited their country and I wasn''t there to cover the visit. This is a novelty for me.

When Hikmet Cetin travelled there, the first-ever Turkish foreign minister to set foot in Israel, he took me with him. The same was repeated with Tansu Ciller, who took me when she visited Israel as the first Turkish prime minister. I was with Suleyman Demirel too during his state visit to Israel as the Turkish president. I also happened to be in Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul''s press entourage when he toured Israel and Palestine last January.

You might have expected that I would have accompanied Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his current visit to Israel and Palestine. My friends there might have been disappointed when they realized that I didn''t show up. Sorry, I excused myself this time around.

I didn''t feel like going there for variety of reasons.

As a journalist, I always accept invitations from state dignitaries without any reservations, but never forced myself on them; since Erdogan doesn''t like to travel with the press, no invitations are extended to journalists in his forays outside the country. Furthermore, I would like to have easy access to the politician I am traveling with, but the prime minister doesn''t make himself approachable: He flies with his executive jet while the rest of his delegation, including the press and businessmen, are flown separately.

These are my personal reasons for not going to Israel this time around, but the reasons why I refrained from making my presence felt in Israel now aren''t personal, but more profound.

The ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party has been critical of Israel because of its harsh policies towards the Palestinians. After the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the crippled Hamas leader, which took place after he said his morning prayers, Prime Minister Erdogan used the term "state terror" to refer to the killing. He didn''t receive Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when Olmert made an official visit to Turkey soon thereafter. His harsh words for the Israeli government have been praised by many in the Arab press as an exemplary action lacking in most Arab rulers.

This was about a year ago. He started his visit to Israel on Sunday although nothing concrete has happened in the Israeli government''s policies towards Palestinians. The only positive development has been Prime Minister Ariel Sharon''s unilateral decision to dismantle some Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. At the same time though, his government has allocated space for new Jewish settlements encircling Arab Jerusalem, a decision contrary to the Roadmap designed by the U.S. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on the record as criticizing the matter directed at Sharon himself. In the four years of the reign of George W. Bush as U.S. president, Sharon has never been so unloved by Washington.

This is curious, since some people around Erdogan are said to have advised him strongly to visit Israel on the premise that the visit will play well with decision makers in Washington. His advisors seemed to be of the opinion that a powerful Jewish lobby in the U.S. could work miracles to smooth over differences between Washington and Ankara.

I very much doubt it. The prime minister''s presence in Tel Aviv would only give his Israeli counterpart a much-needed card to play against both the Palestinians, showing them that their supposed sponsor Turkey is backing him instead, and also to those Americans who are keenly trying to convince Sharon that he must accept the two-state solution. Erdogan''s visit would most likely ease the pressure on the Israeli government to reach a just solution with the Palestinians.

I see another difficulty with the timing of the visit.

New Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas hasn''t been able to find his own footing yet. He lacks the charisma and historical weight of his predecessor Yasser Arafat, and he hasn''t overcome the problems he inherited, as well as the new problems created by Arafat''s demise. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are as strong as ever and the only hope for Abbas'' success as the chairman of Palestinian Authority is to gain some concessions from Israel, yet Sharon is not forthcoming. Abbas needs some more clout and his scheduled visit to Washington this month could have that impact.

When I raise these issues with people close to the government they show two reactions: They simply say, "You know nothing about the intricacies of the Israeli-Arab problem" or they put more emphasis on the Palestinian leg of Erdogan''s visit. I never claim that I''m well versed in these problems although half my life has been spent trying to understand and analyze it. Rather, I tend to acknowledge the second half of the equation; in any case, the visit will set the stage for solidarity with the Palestinian people, although I reserve the right to suspect its veracity.

Over the years and after many visits to Israel, I''ve made indelible friendships with both Israelis and Palestinians. I''m sure they were disappointed by my absence during Prime Minister Erdogan''s visit. My only consolation is my belief that the Turkish prime minister will make another visit to congratulate the newly created Palestinian state at an opportune time.

Then I''ll be accompanying him.

From The New Anatolian, May 3, 2005

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