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Middle East: In Israel, Turkish Foreign Minister Seeks Mideast Peace Role For Ankara

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul today began a two-day visit to Israel -- his first there since the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party came to power in Ankara in late 2002. Tomorrow, Turkey's top diplomat is due to hold talks with Palestinian leaders as they prepare for elections on 9 January. Gul's visit is seen a bid to repair bilateral ties damaged by Ankara's recent criticism of Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories. EU-hopeful Turkey also hopes to boost its profile as a potential mediator in the Middle East peace process.

Prague, 4 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul arrived in Israel at the head of a large delegation of government officials and businessmen.

Today, the Turkish envoy met with President Moshe Katsav and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom after praying at Islam's third-holiest shrine -- the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. He was later scheduled to hold talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres.

Sharon recently made Peres his most senior deputy in a future coalition government. That cabinet will seek to implement Sharon's controversial plan to disengage from Palestinian areas. Israel is due to withdraw from Gaza and four West Bank settlements later this year.

Gul's visit also comes on the eve of another regional development. On 9 January, Palestinians go to the polls to elect a leader to succeed former President Yasser Arafat, who died in November. Observers say the vote could mark a turning point for the region.

In an interview published today in the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz," Gul said he was carrying a message for Israel from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

In comments to Israeli television before leaving Ankara, Gul said a number of factors, including Syria's "peaceful intentions," made him optimistic about the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

"All the leaders in the region want peace. This is good. Everybody wants to contribute [to] peace -- President [al-]Assad, the Palestinian side, Prime Minister Sharon -- everybody. We're all optimistic for the future because there is a different climate now," Gul said.

In his "Ha'aretz" interview, Gul declined to elaborate on al-Assad's message, saying only that Sharon's cabinet should take advantage of the new regional climate to seek peace "not only with the Palestinians, but with Syria and Lebanon as well."

Turkish media reported today that Syria's message of goodwill was initially passed on to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a visit to Damascus last month.

"Ha'aretz" last week reported that al-Assad, who recently ordered more troops out of Lebanon, had apparently asked Turkey to mediate between Syria and Israel.

President al-Assad has made several peace overtures in the recent past. Israel, however, has met them with a lukewarm response, demanding that Syria first stop sponsoring Palestinian and Lebanon-based Shi'a militant groups.

Addressing reporters after talks with Shalom, Gul insisted today that Syria should not be excluded from the Middle East peace process. "As you [know], we have good relations with Syria," he said. "We believe that this peace should be a comprehensive peace in this region, and Syria should be part of the peace process also."

Ankara, a close ally of the United States, has pushed for closer relations with Damascus since the invasion of Iraq.

Ignoring U.S. warnings to limit its cooperation with Syria, Ankara has over the past two years reached several economic deals with its southern neighbor as well as a number of security agreements, including some addressing the Kurdish separatist issue.

If Turkey sees itself as a potential powerbroker between Israel and Syria, it also cites its good relations with the Palestinians to claim a role in the Middle East peace process.

Turkish public opinion is generally favorable to Palestine's cause and Ankara has been maintaining privileged ties with that former Ottoman colony.

Before proceeding to Jordan, Gul is scheduled to travel to the West Bank town of Ramallah tomorrow for talks with interim Palestinian Authority head Rawhi Fattuh, Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei, Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath, and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman and presidential frontrunner Mahmud Abbas.

The Ankara-based "Turkish Daily News" daily today quoted Turkish diplomats as saying that Gul intends to listen to both sides before offering any contribution. Those unidentified diplomats also told the newspaper that Turkey is ready to train Palestinian police officers and provide assistance in the banking or education sector. Ankara is also considering extending financial help to the Palestinian Authority.

Gul today reiterated a Turkish offer to facilitate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. "So many innocent [Israeli] people, unfortunately, have lost their lives," he said. "On the other side, on the Palestinian side also, so many people have lost their lives. It is time to talk about peace. It is time to talk about how we [could] contribute to peace."

Meanwhile, Gul will seek to persuade his hosts that Israel remains a privileged partner for Ankara despite Turkey's policy of rapprochement with the Arab world and growing cooperation with the European Union. Turkey and Israel have been linked with a number of defense agreements since 1996. Israeli observers, however, note that Ankara tends to give economic priority to the EU, which it hopes to join by 2015.

Despite traditionally good relations, Turkey and Israel have gone through periods of strain in the past few years. In 2002, then Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit accused Israel of carrying out a policy of "genocide" against the Palestinians. In May, Erdogan condemned as "state terror" Sharon's heavy-handed policy in the Palestinian territories.

Erdogan last year reportedly turned down an invitation to visit Israel, signaling an unprecedented chill in bilateral ties. Gul suggested yesterday that Erdogan's visit could take place soon.

Asked by "Ha'aretz" whether Ankara still viewed Israel's policy in the Palestinian territories as "state terror," the Turkish envoy said, "We need to put all that behind us." He added, "This is no time to criticize, but to look at positive things."