Thomas Seibert
The National
December 12, 2012 - 1:00am

ISTANBUL // Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's visit to Ankara yesterday highlighted Turkey's two-pronged Middle East policy that seeks to balance strong support for the Palestinian cause and unyielding criticism of Israel with a pragmatism that includes fresh talks with Tel Aviv.

Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, said his country would continue to work for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Mr Gul said during a news conference in the Turkish capital after meeting Mr Abbas that Israel should know that it was "playing with fire" in the settlement issue and that this approach was "totally unacceptable".

Mr Abbas, on his first foreign visit since Palestine was accepted as a non-member observer state at the United Nations last month, said the Palestinians might turn to the International Criminal Court if Israel kept building new settlements around Jerusalem. The Israeli settlement plans for an area in east Jerusalem known as E1 had to stop, he said. "This is a red line for us."

Mr Abbas was scheduled to meet Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, late last night.

Mr Erdogan has been a fierce critic of Israel on the international stage. He has also publicly voiced his intention to visit the Gaza Strip, ruled by the Hamas movement, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

Speaking to reporters last month, Mr Erdogan said Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal had invited him to Gaza, but the prime minister declined to give a date for his visit. When Israel launched its latest military action in Gaza last month, Mr Erdogan branded Israel a "terrorist state".

But for all the anti-Israeli talk, the Erdogan government has also confirmed that a Turkish official met with an Israeli envoy last month to look for ways to mend ties. Relations between former allies Turkey and Israel have been in crisis since nine Turkish activists were killed by Israeli soldiers during a raid on a ship carrying aid for Gaza in May 2010. Analysts say the pattern is part of Mr Erdogan's approach to appease conservative voters at home while at the same time following a more pragmatic line abroad.

Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for the Sabah newspaper in Istanbul, said the prime minister was keeping a close eye on opinion polls in Turkey, where anti-Israeli feelings run high.

"The key issue here is always domestic," Baydar said yesterday, adding that Mr Erdogan was looking towards local, presidential and parliamentary elections coming up in 2014 and 2015. The prime minister has indicated that he wants to run for president in 2014.

But Baydar said Mr Erdogan was aware that cutting ties with Israel was not in Turkey's foreign-policy interests.

"He doesn't want to alienate the United States too much, and he knows what kind of regional player Iran is," Bayda said. "He still wants to keep the door open with Israel."

Mr Erdogan has also been careful to draw a line between his political problems with Israel's government and his view of Jews as a religious group. He has publicly condemned anti-Semitism as a crime against humanity and has reached out to Turkey's small Jewish community.

Mr Erdogan says reconciliation with Israel is possible if it issues an official apology for the 2010 raid, pays compensation to the relatives of the victims and lifts the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

In the confidential meeting between Turkey and Israeli officials last month, Israel signalled that an agreement about an apology and compensation was possible, but that Israel had rejected Ankara's demand that the Gaza blockade be lifted, according to Turkish news reports.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, confirmed the fresh talks with Israel in a television interview but insisted that Turkey had not entered into "bargaining" with Israel.

Mr Erdogan has also stressed he had been steadfast in dealing with Israel.

"We have responded with whatever answer was necessary after the attack on our ship in international waters," he told parliament during the annual budget debate on Monday,

The opposition in Ankara used the televised budget debate to accuse Mr Erdogan of conducting secret negotiations with Israel.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, also said the government allowed Nato to deploy a radar base in south-eastern Anatolia to shield Israel from a possible missile attack from Iran. "But you are unable to own up to the people," he said of Mr Erdogan.

But an adviser to Mr Erdogan shot back saying Mr Kilicdaroglu's Republican People's Party (CHP), the biggest opposition group in parliament, lacked credibility because it had earlier accused the government of breaking the long-standing alliance between Turkey and Israel.

"First the CHP complains to the West that the government is destroying relations with Israel, and now it accuses the government of holding 'secret talks with Israel,'" Ibrahim Kalin said on Twitter.


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