EU: Why Turkey and why now?
Alon Ben-Meir

October 3, 2005

More than any other time in the past few decades, Turkey can play a pivotal role in advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and become a major political and economic force in the Middle East.

Unlike the European nations and even the United States, Turkey enjoys good relations with all the major players in the region. To achieve this, it has improved relations with Iran, mended a conflict over water with Syria, refrained from being dragged into the war in Iraq, opened a new and hopeful dialogue with its own Kurdish minority, dramatically expanded economic trade and military cooperation with Israel, and has become directly involved in Palestinian economic development.

Many reasons have led to Turkey`s rise to prominence and the region`s recognition of its potential: As a former empire, Turkey has a far better understanding of, and a greater appreciative for, the region`s history, tradition, and culture, which was under its rule, than do nations outside the Middle East, while sharing a common religion with its neighbors that promotes affinity.

Turkey`s value as a bridge between East and West is hard to exaggerate, not only because of its geographic location but because it is a democracy with a predominantly Muslim population. In addition, while maintaining generally good relations with Israel, Turkey has come in recent years to accept Israel`s centrality. Ties between the two nations have grown much stronger, earning Turkey a special place, second only to that of the United States, in Israel`s regional political calculus.

Turkey`s position is also strengthened in that other nations in the Middle East regard Turkey as a less assuming power than European countries such as France, Germany, or United Kingdom. As a result, Turkey is increasingly viewed by its neighbors as a more attractive interlocutor, a perception that offers Ankara countless opportunities to become directly and indirectly involved in regional politics and economic development.

And with the resumption of an open-ended peaceful dialogue with its Kurdish minority, Turkey has only further solidified its credibility. Finally, Turkey`s improved relationship with its neighbors has come at a time, perhaps not accidentally, when the prospect of its admission to the EU seems ever more remote and when the United States continues to be marred in Iraq. These conditions seem to have pushed Ankara to look to the East for a new door to the world.

Besides anticipating undertaking major development projects in Gaza, such as the construction of power and desalination plants, houses for refugees, roads and schools, Turkey is poised to take over, develop, and manage the Erez Industrial Zone in Gaza.

The symbolic and practical significance of this project are enormous: it will contribute to the economic development and political stability of Palestine, provide thousands of new jobs for Palestinian laborers, especially women (who could not seek gainful employment elsewhere because of social constraints), strengthen Turkey`s ties with both Israel and the Palestinians and give Turkish firms business opportunities in the region. Finally, it will allow Palestinians to export their products inside and outside the region and thus generate millions in hard currency to support their own economy.

Turkey can make another significant contribution to the peace process by assuming responsibility for some of the training of Palestinian security forces. Equipping them with about 20,000 uniforms, so at a minimum they will all look alike, is a very good beginning.

Although Israel has traditionally objected to the presence of foreign troops, even as monitors or trainers, it might welcome Turkish involvement in this delicate undertaking.

Although efforts are being made by Egypt and Jordan to train and consolidate the security forces, the Palestinian security sector must be streamlined and fully integrated under the PA interior ministry and Turkey can be of help in this task. Palestinian security forces would be more receptive to Turkish than EU or American trainers, especially since anti-American sentiment continues to rise due to the continuing tragic events in Iraq, a situation deeply troubling to Ankara.

Turkey`s geographic proximity, combined with the policy of constructive initiatives by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, also makes it an ideal country for business and political gatherings.

Only recently Turkey hosted the third Ankara Forum, where Israeli, Palestinian and Turkish business representatives worked together to promote small- and medium-scale business and development projects in Gaza.

Ankara also can be a safe place for Israeli and Palestinian delegates to conduct political negotiations and would be an ideal host for an international peace conference when the time is ripe. Last September, Turkey was instrumental in arranging and hosting a historic meeting between the foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan, and its success can be a prototype for similar future initiatives.

In a recent trip to Israel, Turkey, and Egypt, I had extensive discussions with academics and government officials at the Center for Strategic Research in Ankara. During those talks, it was clearly articulated that Turkey must demonstrate a capacity for leadership, by taking the initiative and then succeeding in its intercessions, if it is to become an indispensable player in this very volatile region.

On the same trip, a top Israeli official who shapes Israeli-Turkish relations told me Turkey can be involved in thousands of different projects, excepting that of the final borders. When I asked if this precluded political mediation, he said: `We are not there yet, but it is possible.`

With the flare-up of violence between Israel and Hamas, Turkey may well be able to interject itself and prove more effective than even the Egyptians in trying to persuade Hamas that it is fighting a lost, in fact suicidal, battle.

Turkey`s experience in battling terrorism and its balanced approach to Israel and the Arab states place it in a unique position to be persuasive. This is why Turkey can also be a major player in monitoring the Palestinian national elections in addition to assuming some security role and facilitating relations between Israel and the Palestinians before and during the elections.

In sum, besides assuming an increasingly bigger role in economic developments, Turkey must now come into its own and take on a more direct political role, get involved in the development of the Palestinian security, and in mediation between Israel and the Palestinians.

As a new player with a keen historical perspective, even-handedness, and a commitment to regional peace and prosperity, Turkey just may succeed where others have failed.

Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU and is the Middle Project Director at the World Policy Institute New York.