Annapolis to Ankara, and back again

Turkey is uniquely qualified to facilitate Arab-Israel peacemaking.

peres ankara 224 88 (photo credit: GPO)
peres ankara 224 88
(photo credit: GPO)
Much talk in recent days has focused on the US-planned Middle East peace conference scheduled to take place later in November. The anticipation and buildup to yet another high-profile American attempt to resolve the seemingly never-ending Israeli-Palestinian problem has been billed as the Bush administration's last chance to leave a lasting positive diplomatic legacy in a region that has otherwise caused this presidency such heartache. Yet at the same time that America's flashy diplomacy prepares to take center stage there is another emerging player in the Middle East that prefers the quiet diplomacy of goodwill. In typically understated Turkish diplomacy, President Abdullah Gul hosted Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, President Shimon Peres, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a way that would have been unprecedented for any other country. Yet, the meetings have gone largely unnoticed outside the region. Few groundbreaking ideas or initiatives were proposed, but goodwill and rhetorical support for new thinking on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was abundant. Preferring to boost economic and tourist ties with these three countries, Ankara emphasized its shared culture and history to advocate for a stable and prosperous Middle Eastern community. Precisely for these reasons, Turkey seems to be emerging as a new player for potential peace-making within the Middle East that should be taken into account. Turkey enjoys a unique position in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by virtue of the fact that it was the first Muslim-majority state to recognize the state of Israel in 1949 and the 11th state to recognize the PLO's declaration of statehood in 1988, making it the only Western nation or country with formal ties to Israel to do so at the time. Despite this unique history and attempts to keep a balanced policy toward Israel and Palestine, Turkey has generally tended to tilt toward the side of Jerusalem rather than Ramallah. WITHIN TURKEY, there has been an active debate about the role of the Turkish-Israeli alliance since its official emergence as a "strategic alignment" in 1996, instigated largely by the Turkish military. The disconnect between Turkish elite's realpolitik reasons for aligning with Israel and the general population's embrace of the Palestinian cause has played itself out in recent years in Turkish domestic politics. Now with the emergence of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the primary actor in Turkish foreign policymaking, Ankara offers an unusual perspective from which to view the Middle East peace process. The AKP offers a Muslim voice from within a secular republic that has tried to balance Israeli-Palestine relations. As a regional power within the Middle East and an increasingly important global actor, Turkey offers a very different perspective than the US. While Washington continues to be the main broker in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, it is hardly seen as being fair or impartial. Ankara, on the other hand, has little to gain from meddling and seemingly offers its "good offices" out of a genuine sense of helpfulness. Seeing itself as a natural bridge between a variety of civilizations, religions, and regions, Turkey may well be the overlooked partner in the peace process. Turkey has already played a crucial role in Israel-Syria negotiations, which eventually failed despite a series of quiet negotiations and meetings. Ankara could play a similar role with Iran given its deepening pragmatic relations with Teheran, while maintaining its formal alliances with both Washington and Jerusalem. Turkey's quiet boosting of economic relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors and goodwill gestures exhibited by President Gul in all of his meetings this week point to the potential that Ankara holds as being a hub for peace. A conflict like the Palestinian-Israeli one cannot be solved overnight or in one conference at Annapolis. It requires careful and creative diplomacy on the part of the international community beyond the US. Honest brokers are hard to come by and neutral locations and "good offices" are hard to find for discrete conversations and dialogue. Regardless of the outcome at Annapolis, there is not much for Washington to lose by throwing Ankara into the mix. New ideas and initiatives generated by a close neighbor who is in a strong position to exert pressure on both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government are better than recycling old ideas and scenarios that have thus far failed. The writer is a graduate fellow at Princeton University and formerly worked on the Turkey Desk at the State Department.