The February 16, 2006, visit to Ankara by a Hamas delegation, headed by Khaled Mash'al, sparked a heated controversy in the Turkish media, deepening the rift between the secularists and the Islamists.
According to Turkish media reports, the architect of the visit was AKP(1) MP Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign policy advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a proponent of closer ties with Islamic countries; Foreign Ministry officials had played no part in organizing this visit; and the invitation had been extended by the AKP as a political party – with Erdogan's approval – and not by the Turkish government.(2)
The secular, mainstream media was very critical of the visit, and of the AKP government for undermining Turkey's firm anti-terror position by dealing with a terrorist organization.
The Islamist media on the other hand, hailed the visit. Islamist columnists attacked the secular media for its criticism and accused it of being "Americanists," "Israelists," and a "lobby of traitors." PM Erdogan and FM Gul echoed similar views when they respectively accused "some media organs of being open to the influences of foreign agents and diplomats." Both comments provoked strong criticism by various press associations, which called on Gul and Erdogan to present evidence to support their statements. Gul withdrew his remark about "foreign agents" and said that his words had "gone beyond what he had intended to say."
While the media reported extensively on U.S., E.U., and Israeli disapproval of the visit, PM Erdogan and FM Gul claimed that both the U.S. and Israel had not only known about the visit but were also appreciative of it.
The following are excerpts from the Turkish press reactions during the Hamas visit and in its aftermath.
The editor-in-chief of the mass-circulation secular Turkish daily Hurriyet, Ertugrul Ozkok, wrote:(3) "[…] Who is the 'genius' who came up with the idea of bringing one of Hamas's most notorious names to Ankara? […] Isn't there any sensible person left in the [Turkish] Foreign Ministry who could have prevented this 'initiative?' Have all the sensible people [at the ministry] been neutralized?
"They claim to 'convey a message to Hamas.' Messages have already been conveyed many times, both openly and through closed channels. The whole world has united in putting pressure on Hamas […]. Still armed, and unable to shed its terrorist habits, Hamas is squeezed into a corner. Everybody is demanding that it disarm and recognize Israel. Even those in Palestine are not in a real dialogue with Hamas. PA President Abbas is talking about [the possibility of] new elections. The U.S. and E.U. are in full agreement on this issue. And some smart-heads in Ankara think that they are taking some 'initiative.'
"[…] Foreign affairs officials to whom I spoke were in a state of panic […] trying to convince the journalists that the decision to invite [the delegation] was made by the party [i.e. the ruling AKP]. [But] even if they could convince us, how are they going to convince the world? […] What good could come of this visit? […]
"Yesterday, Ankara made the most unnecessary and ill-timed move in our diplomatic history. […]."
Turkish columnist and Washington correspondent for the centrist daily Star Gazete Tulin Daloglu wrote:(4) "[…] Ankara, which aspires to be a 'regional power' in the Middle East, sent Hamas an invitation. […] (it should be noted that [Hamas leader Khaled] Mash'al rejected U.N. Secretary-General Annan's recent call to end its armed struggle, and that since Hamas was elected [on January 25, 2006] Israel has foiled 17 suicide bombings). […]
"[...] If some PKK people were to be democratically elected in Turkey, would we allow them take an oath and join the parliament? […] If we want our concerns to be respected, we have to continue with our struggle [against terrorism], and never 'falter.' […] If, at some future time, a sector of our population brings the PKK into the elections, would you be ready to listen to statements such as 'you must accept those who have been 'democratically elected?' […]"
Turkish columnist Asli Aydintasbas, of the centrist secular daily Sabah, wrote:(5) "Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al's surprise visit to Ankara creates a chill between Turkey and its close allies.
"Yesterday, a high-ranking European official said, 'The E.U.'s policy is very clear. Until Hamas disarms and recognizes Israel, there will be no contact [with them]. [...] Turkey thinks it can mediate, but this is something beyond Ankara's [capabilities]. Ankara must decide whether it wants to be [like] Egypt, or a member of the E.U.?'
An American source said: 'We are very disturbed. We were told only at the last minute. The Turkish government had asked us not to meet with Osman Baydemir, [Kurdish] Mayor of Diyarbakir [on his visit in the U.S. in February 2006]. Although he is an elected politician, we took Turkey's views into account ["…Due to intervention by U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Ross Wilson, Baydemir was not allowed to set foot in the U.S. Department of State"(6)]. Now the Turkish prime minister is planning to meet with an unelected individual from Hamas's military wing.' […]
"The organization of the visit was led by the prime minister's foreign policy advisor, Ahmet Davutoglu. […] Davutoglu contacted the Hamas leaders through the Turkish Embassy in Damascus. Syrian journalist Husnu Mahalli(7) accompanied the delegation from Damascus.
"The U.S. expressed its disappointment to Turkish Ambassador to Washington Nabi Sensoy, and asked, 'How would you react if we met with the PKK?'"
Columnist Melih Asik of the mainstream secular daily Milliyet wrote:(8)
"There is no government in Palestine yet. There is no government program. There is no declaration by Hamas that they have abandoned terrorism. [But] they [already] want to come to Turkey, and you [the AKP government] are welcoming them. By doing this, you are trampling on your own foreign policy which rejects terrorism. You are turning all the countries in the world that are against terrorism against yourselves. And all that for what? Because Hamas is Islamist! [First,] the prime minister says he will meet with them. Then under pressure he gives it up. This makes him look like a leader who cannot decide. What does Turkey gain by hosting Hamas in Ankara? Nothing. We only lose respectability […]"
Columnist Cuneyt Arcayurek of the center-left, secular Turkish daily Cumhuriyet wrote:(9) "[...] The Foreign Ministry keeps telling foreign diplomats that it knew nothing about Khaled Mash'al's coming. [...] Foreign Minister Gul gave Israel assurances. The Foreign Ministry kept saying that there was no intention [to initiate] such a visit. February 14… February 15… the [Foreign] Ministry insists that 'there is no invitation,' [while] the Hamas delegation received the visas… February 16: Khaled Mash'al is in [Ankara]! [Less than 24 hours before Hamas arrived,] Foreign Minister Gul told [visiting] German Foreign Minister [Frank-]Walter Steinmeier that no invitation had been extended to Hamas. […] The honor of the government, and that of the foreign minister, the party's No. 2 man, is on the line. […]
"Why did [Erdogan] invite an organization that is on every terrorism list in the world, on the basis of unbelievable, nonsensical excuses? Because Hamas's goal – and [Erdogan's] ideal – is to build an Islamic state."
"A Foreign Policy Farce"
In a column titled "A Foreign Policy Farce," Emin Colasan of Hurriyet wrote:(10) "Mash'al, the leader of the Hamas organization, known for its terror attacks in Palestine [...] came to our country at Turkey's invitation. But this visit turned into a real farce, scandal, [and] catastrophe." [...] High ranking Foreign Ministry officials begged the journalists who heard the news to write nothing about it.
"Two days earlier, the German foreign minister was in Ankara […] They told him, 'Don't worry, [Mash'al] will not come.' [But] in the end [the delegation] did come! […] This quickly turned into a fiasco. [The Turkish government] tried to make up excuses and pretexts to [convince] public opinion, both inside and outside Turkey, that 'the Hamas leader came not as a guest of the government, but [as a guest] of the AKP!'
"The [Hamas] men first met with diplomats from the Foreign Ministry, and then went to the AKP headquarters. There they met with [Turkish Foreign Minister] Abdullah Gul and with aides to the AKP chairman [PM Erdogan]. […] According to what [the Turkish hosts] said, Abdullah Gul met with the Hamas delegation 'not in his capacity as foreign minister, but as an AKP member.' Who are they kidding? […]"
In an editorial, the centrist secular daily Sabah wrote:(11) "[…] The following are the four perceptions [about Turkey] now being reflected to the West:
"*Turkey has ruined the international consensus.
"*Hamas has been rewarded, without any concession on its part.
"*It is being thought that Turkey is not part of the West.
"*Turkey has shaken the confidence of the E.U. and NATO. [...]
"The Foreign Ministry, which knew of Hamas's desire to visit but did not quite agree to it […], is now praying that Hamas comes out soon to denounce terrorism [so that Turkey can claim credit for its role in the change]."(12)
Cengiz Candar gave an interview to Nese Duzel of the center-left, liberal Turkish daily Radikal.(13)
Cengiz Candar: (14) "[…] There is an axis in the Middle East against Israel and the U.S.. Iran sits at the command center of this axis. While Syria is the logistical link of this axis, the operational roles are played by Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Palestine. Hamas politics, represented by Mash'al, is a piece of this Iran-Syria-Hizbullah axis. […] Hamas symbolizes the extension of Iran's influence to the Palestinian territories, and allows its [i.e. Iran's] direct intervention in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On the other hand, Hamas is an anomaly in the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah axis.[…] because the others [Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah] are not Sunni […] Yet Hamas is Sunni, and a part of the Muslim Brotherhood Organization. […]"
Question: "What is Mash'al's relationship with Syria? […] Is Mash'al a part of the Syrian Muhabarat [secret intelligence services]? […] Was this visit to Turkey organized with the help of Syria?"
Cengiz Candar: "Syria is known in the world to have a 'regime of mukhabarat.' So was the Ba'th regime in Iraq. In this kind of regime, security and intelligence organizations are on the top of the pyramid. Therefore, Mash'al cannot operate outside [i.e. independently of] the Syrian intelligence services. Syrian intelligence services control, support and organize Mash'al's stay [in Syria], and all of his operations, contacts, [and] travels. […] We still do not know who invited Mash'al. Was it the [Turkish] government, or the Prime Minister's [Office], the Foreign Ministry, or the AKP? […] Probably it was Ahmet Davutoglu's idea. But this visit was made according to the will of, and with the knowledge of, Prime Minister [Erdogan]."
"This affair may have grave ramifications, because of its dimensions related to the Iran-Syria axis and Syrian intelligence. […] With this invitation, Turkey has taken a position in foreign policy. Whatever they [i.e. the AKP] may say, or how they try to explain it by saying 'we invited them to give them a message,' with this invitation they have included Turkey in the Iran-Syria axis, and presented the image that they are giving a shoulder to [i.e. supporting] that axis. […] We are a NATO country. You cannot have it both ways. They tried to cover up, with a cloak of innocence, and said, 'Hamas wanted to come, and it would not be nice to say no to them. So we decided to accept them in order to give some message.' This is a foreign policy failure. Foreign policy is a not a mechanism for delivering messages. […] So what happened with the message that they gave? Was it accepted [by Hamas]? By the look of what Mash'al said in Iran, they do not appear to have been successful. What was important for Mash'al was to set foot in Turkey – this was his [successful foreign] policy.
"The foreign policy brain of the AKP is Ahmet Davutoglu. He is the man behind all important policies regarding the Islamic world, including Mash'al's visit. Davutoglu is the prime minister's chief [foreign policy] advisor and is given the title of 'ambassador' by FM Gul. There is no other official in AKP that has influence on both the prime minister and the foreign minister. His [Davutoglu's] world view has certain targets. Turkey's E.U. membership is […] not the most important one of these targets […] Davutoglu's views are impacted by a 'Muslim-Ottoman' [identity]. His main goal is to move Turkey to the leadership of the Islamic world. […] Through Davutoglu, this has entered the prime minister's lexicon as well."
Cengiz Candar: "When, every now and then, he [Prime Minister Erdogan] talks about an 'Alliance of Civilizations' and claims that he can bring about [such an alliance], the world will [eventually] ask him: 'Who are you? Are you speaking as a Western country on behalf of the [Western] family, or are you on the other side of the fence, and you are saying, One of my feet is with you [in the West], but my body and soul belong with the Islamic world?' [The AKP] is displaying the second option. When he [Erdogan] talks about 'alliance of civilizations,' he […] is playing the role of an ambassador or an advocate of Islam to the West. […] With this attitude, he cannot succeed. Only a Western Turkey can influence the Islamic world […].
"AKP has constant 'Sunni reflexes.' Getting close to Hamas does not conflict with the AKP's foreign policies. […] Hamas is the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Plenty of elements within the AKP [leadership] have ideological ties and personal relationships with this movement [i.e. Muslim Brotherhood]."
In the aftermath of the visit, the Turkish media discussed statements by PM Erdogan, FM Gul, U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Wilson, and Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al. These statements created some confusion about the positions of the U.S. and Israel regarding Hamas in general, and the invitation of its leadership to Turkey in particular:
In reaction to PM Erdogan's and FM Gul's claims that the U.S. and Israel had responded positively to Hamas's visit, Hurriyet editor-in-chief and columnist Ertugrul Ozkok asked in irony:(15) "Do you mean to say that the U.S. and Israel are talking out of both sides of their mouths? That they are telling journalists that they are angry, while they tell you [i.e. the Turkish government] that they are happy?"
Columnist Uluc Gurkan of the centrist Star Gazete wrote:(18) "[..] As a matter of fact, at the conclusion of their meetings in Turkey, Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al told the Turkish press: 'We received important advice […]'. Yet in an interview with Al-Jazeera TV he said, 'I came to Turkey not to listen to advice, but to give advice.'
"Not only did this statement by Mash'al give no sign of the democratization for which the AKP leadership had hoped; it has, in fact, put Turkey in a difficult spot.
"[…] With this invitation, the AKP separated itself from the international consensus. It took the risk of legitimizing Hamas […]."
U.S. Ambassador Wilson: "Hamas Criticism – of Certain Groups in the U.S., Including Leading Jews – Not U.S. Official View"
Most Turkish newspapers reported on remarks by U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Ross Wilson to the representatives of Sabah, Radikal, Zaman and NTV. The report in Zaman was titled "Hamas Criticism – Of Certain Groups in the U.S., Including Leading Jews – Not U.S. Official View." The following are excerpts from these reports:(19)
"U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Ross Wilson offered his assessment of Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al's visit to Ankara. 'Messages are important for the United States, and as far as I understand, Turkish officials communicated all.'
"He said: 'Certain groups in the United States are criticizing Turkey. Some influential Americans expressed concern, such as the Jewish community. Their comments belong [only] to themselves. The approach of the U.S. government is just as I told you.'
"Wilson disagreed that the Hamas visit would damage Turkey-U.S. relations. 'We were talking to the Turkish government before and after Hamas, and we will go on doing so. […] 'The Turkish government informed us on Wednesday of Hamas's visit,' the ambassador said.
"Reminded [by journalists] that some members of Congress [such as Congressman Tom Lantos] had had strong reactions against the Hamas visit while he and his government had not reacted in a similar way, Wilson said, 'It is true that certain circles have protested (the visit), including leading Jews. […].'"
According to February 22, 2006 Turkish media reports, Prime Minister Erdogan broke his silence, during a regional AKP party convention in Istanbul, to defend his government's decision to invite Hamas. These reports stated: "[…Erdogan] said that Turkey cannot be a bystander in the Middle East conflict, and that Hamas leaders were given the right messages at the right time. He said that Turkey had fulfilled its historical and moral obligations, and that it would continue to do so in the future. He said that the decision [to invite Hamas to Turkey] was taken by his government, and not just by some of his advisors, as some in the media had claimed, and he said that the Foreign Ministry had been involved in every step. He struck back at the opposition's criticisms by saying that they did not need permission from anybody, and that they would decide when, how and with whom to meet. [...]
"Erdogan also said: 'Talks were held with U.S. and Israeli officials before the visit. I personally spoke on the phone with Palestinian President [Mahmoud Abbas] twice. He said that he was pleased by our effort. After the delegation left, Israel's Acting Prime Minister Olmert called me. I spoke to him too. He [Olmert] told me 'We believe you, we trust you.'"(20)
The Turkish Islamic daily Yeni Safak, known to be close to the AKP government, reported: (21)
"[…] In a meeting of the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul […] stated that Israel recognizes Hamas as a force and looks warmly towards the formation of a [Palestinian] government. He drew attention to the 'negative' media coverage in Turkey, and said that some Turkish media organs and some certain foreign circles [referring to the protests by U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos and some American Jewish organizations] were being 'more Israeli' than the Israelis.'"(22)
The Turkish media covered statements by Turkish Foreign Minister Gul at a regional AKP party convention, as well as statements in an earlier live broadcast of a program on Turkey's Samanyolu TV. Gul claimed the right to intervene in Palestinian affairs by virtue of the fact that Turkey had in its possession Ottoman-era land ownership registries and archives of Palestine. Gul also accused the secular mainstream media of being controlled by foreign agencies and foreign diplomatic missions. He withdrew his remarks after many columnists and all of Turkey's major press associations demanded that he produce evidence for his accusations.
Vatan reported: "Gul harshly answered the criticisms related to the visit of the Hamas leader. He said, 'I have been following the foreign press and I see that the Israeli newspapers display a more positive attitude [than some Turkish press organs]. […] Who is more [entitled] to be involved in Palestine than I? The [land] registrations, the archives of Palestine, Israel, Jerusalem, all this geographic area, are in my possession. Last year we gave the documents related to the land registrations of all this area to the Palestinians as a gift. The archives, land registry, maps are all in our possession. We have all the truths; how can I be not involved? […]'(23)
In reaction, Emin Colasan wrote in Hurriyet: (24) "Foreign Minister Gul is again spreading words of wisdom [...] So, since we have the registry from the Ottomans, we should be involved![…] We also have in our archives the registrations of lands such as Cyprus, Northern Iraq (especially Mosul and Kirkuk), Bulgaria, Bosnia, Macedonia, and many Asian and European countries. Given all this – and according to Abdullah Gul's mentality – are we supposed to be interested in all these places too, just because we have their land registries? What kind of mentality is that? […]
"[…] Let's clarify with a few words why these [AKP] people are interested in Hamas: It is because Hamas came to power in Palestine and will build an Islamist state. [This is] very much to the liking of the AKP. All the rest, about registries and archives, is a fairy tale."
In an article criticizing both the AKP government and U.S. policies, columnist Burak Bekdil of the English-language daily Turkish Daily News wrote:(25)
"[...] Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's shrewd bunch think they are everything necessary to be: Islamists today, secularists tomorrow; defenders of human rights, but hunters of cartoonists; […] liberals today, nationalists tomorrow; romantics of the Palestinian cause who are [at the same time] allies with Israel; […] friends of the poor who [at the same time] curse the protesting poor; champions of clean governance, with a polluted record…
"So is it any surprise that the Turkish pragmatists have let the American pragmatists down after nearly three years of efforts […] Anyone in the U.S. administration […] [who is] genuinely appalled by the Hamas parade in Ankara, must rethink […] Did FM Abdullah Gul […] believe for a second that there was anything he could tell Hamas leaders that they had not already heard […]? Did Erdogan and Gul really believe that Hamas would surrender arms after listening to the 'Turkish experience of Islamist pragmatism?' […]
"As the Hamas leadership […] has already declared […] that Hamas will never recognize Israel, questions remain to be answered. How far can the Americans trust Erdogan's government on Iran? When will Erdogan's Sunni genes next reappear? [...] Was the Hamas visit not a policy breach between Turkey and the West?
"[…] And, more importantly, how soon will the Bush administration tire of creating 'new Frankensteins' and realize the distance between [U.S.] rhetoric and observable realities in this part of the world?"
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