ISTANBUL, Turkey -- After two major breakthroughs in less than a week – an accord to end a three-year squabble with Israel and a landmark step by a jailed Kurdish leader to settle a 30-year insurgency – Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s star appears to be rising – and with it, Turkey’s role as a major regional power.
Erdogan, 59, a moderate Islamist and a former mayor of Istanbul, is described as a man of passion and plain speech, two characteristics that sometimes get him in trouble, such as when he recently equated Zionism with a crime against humanity.
He seemed matter-of-fact and serious on Saturday as he voiced hope that the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation that President Barack Obama brokered on Friday might even help resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute – though he also called for Israel to return to the borders that existed before its 1967 victory in the Six-Day War, something that Israeli officials have rejected previously.
“My wish is that common sense prevails in this process, and we make this process a permanent one, to end the years-long suffering, with (Israel’s) withdrawal to the 1967 borders,” he told reporters Saturday.
Israel, for the first time in memory, formally apologized for a military operation and promised compensation to families of eight Turks and one Turkish-American killed in the attack against the Mavi Marmara, an aid ship bringing supplies to civilians in Gaza in July 2010.
Erdogan avoided hyperbole as well on Thursday when Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed founder of the PKK guerrilla group, called for his followers to end their three-decade-long military campaign for Kurdish independence in favor of constitutional reform and political struggle. Erdogan termed the move, announced in a letter read before a crowd of 1 million Kurds, a “positive development.”
But close students of Turkish affairs say the twin events could be a turning point for both Turkey’s democracy and the Middle East region, as well as providing Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003, a longer lease on power, possibly as popularly elected president under a new constitution.
“This is an extraordinarily important set of developments,” said James Jeffrey, who retired last year as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and served as U.S. envoy in Turkey before that. “It shows the capability of Turkey to be an extraordinary player in the region. They have reached these accords with folks they’ve been in conflict with, in one case a diplomatic conflict, in the other a guerrilla war.”
He expressed hope that Israel and Turkey would recognize the need for cooperation in addressing Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel is convinced will produce nuclear weapons, and in addressing Syria, which borders both Israel and Turkey and is now in the third year of a brutal civil war.
“Sooner or later, we’re going to have to do something about Syria,” Jeffrey said. Having Israel and Turkey talking to one another again may help the U.S. find a policy that satisfies both U.S. goals and those of Israel and Turkey, Jeffrey said.
Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, said the deal with Israel showed the value of Erdogan’s insistence on an apology for the Mavi Marmara incident.
“From the outset, we had a principled approach,” he said in a television interview. “This time Israel felt isolated in the process.” Without the apology, he said, “this issue would not have ended, even if it lasted for a century.”