After the Turkish Prime Minister blasted Israel for Operation Cast Lead in Gaza this week, sparking bi-national tensions by walking offstage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Recept Tayyip Erdogan explained in his position towards the operation and the conflict in general in an interview published Saturday.
Erdogan, in the Washington Post's Lally Weymouth, said in response to the question as to why he had "pushed the Turkish-Israeli relationship to its limits" that this was taking "the wrong view," noting that Turkey has been active in promoting the regional peace process.
"At the request of Syria, we entered a phase of working together with Israel and Syria indirectly to get them to talk with each other. We are mediators in that process. This was an example of how much importance we put on peace in the Middle East," he said. "We also took part in the peace talks between Israel and Palestine."
He clarified that he was referring to December meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Despite Abbas' Fatah connection, Erdogan emphasized the importance of engaging Hamas in the process.
"When I was talking with Prime Minister Olmert, I said regarding the Palestine-Israeli talks it would not be correct not to include Hamas in the negotiations. They entered the election in Palestine and won the majority of seats in the parliament," he said, adding that Olmert had not agreed to speak with Hamas.
Within the context of these negotiations, Erdogan said he had believed he could potentially secure the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, in exchange for Hamas prisoners.
"I said to Prime Minister Olmert that if you want us to mediate in order to get the Israeli soldier freed, we can do this and we believe we can achieve something. But . . . once the soldier is free, Israel should (release from jail) Hamas's speaker of parliament and its members of parliament," he said.
Hamas: Political will of the people
Erdogan was subsequently asked why he has such a close relationship with Hamas "which is an arm of Iran and is run by (Hamas politiburo chief Khaled Mashaal) who lives in Damascus."
In response, he said, "First of all, Hamas is not an arm of Iran. Hamas entered the elections as a political party. If the whole world had given them the chance of becoming a political player, maybe they would not be in a situation like this after the elections that they won."
"The world has not respected the political will of the Palestinian people. On the one hand, we defend democracy and we try our best to keep democracy in the Middle East, but on the other hand we do not respect the outcome of . . . the ballot box," he explained.
"Palestine today is an open-air prison. Hamas, as much as they tried, could not change the situation. Just imagine, you imprison the speaker of a country as well as some ministers of its government and members of its parliament. And then you expect them to sit obediently?"
Erdogan explained his frustration against the operation in Gaza as being linked to December advancements between Israel and Syria, in which Turkey was trying to facilitate direct talks.
"Olmert's last sentence (as he left meetings in Ankara) was, "As soon as I get back I will consult with my colleagues and get back to you." As I waited for his response, …on December 27, bombs started falling on Gaza."
Evaluating the end result
"Since December 27 there have been almost 1,300 dead, 6,000 injured, no infrastructure left, no buildings left, everything is damaged, Gaza is a total wreck. It's all closed, under total siege," the prime minister said.
"The United Nations Security Council makes a decision, and Israel announces it does not recognize the decision. I'm not saying that Hamas is a good organization and makes no mistakes. They have made mistakes. But I am evaluating the end result," he said.
Regarding a future role for Turkey in the region, Erdogan said that sending Turkish peacekeepers into Gaza was "totally out of the question. Only maybe as observers. It would be a major mistake for us to send security forces."
He also asserted that Turkey and Israel's relationship was not over and that they had "a serious relationship." But, he said, "the current Israeli government should check itself. They should not exploit this issue for the upcoming elections in Israel."
'I'm not anti-Semitic'
In this same vein, he denied allegations of anti-Semitism and expressed his anger at the outcry of American Jews against his recent comments on the operation in Gaza.
"As an individual, I have always declared that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity. As a prime minister I have always been against anti-Semitism and my frustration is against the current Israeli government because they did not act fairly toward us," he stressed.
In response to a question about the anti-Semitic signs around Turkey recently, he said, "these are individual attempts." He also called recent picketing against the Israeli consulate "democratic demonstrations."
"There are demonstrations in the United States, even in Israel. Everything we have said is against the current Israeli government, nothing against Jews. In my speeches I have stated very clearly that anyone who even thinks about doing anything against the Jews in Turkey will find me against them," he stressed.
In a final question, Erdogan was asked about new US President Barack Obama and whether it was expected that he would play a more even-handed role between Palestinians and Israelis.
"There is no justice right now. We expect justice from now on," Erdogan responded.