- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

Turkey may have a significant role to play in helping calm tensions and attacks between Israel and Lebanon. The questions are how Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees the big picture and the degree to which Iran has egged on the recent escalation.

Iran was expected to answer the international community’s proposal over nuclear weapons before the G-8 summit, but it keeps stalling. Not only do Iranian leaders seem content to leave the issue unsettled, but some could argue that Iran is pushing toward another world war.

In February, President Bush committed the United States to “militarily” defending Israel if necessary. At the time, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” Meanwhile, Hamas was celebrating its victory in the Palestinian elections.

Surprised, the State Department said it would refuse aid to a Hamas-controlled government, as the organization remains on the list of terrorist organizations. Then Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ exiled leader, made his first state visit to Ankara before heading to Iran, saying that Iran has pledged its “full financial and political support” to the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority. So, did Iran have a role in Hamas’ kidnapping of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, followed by Hezbollah capturing two more Israelis? Why is this happening now?

As world leaders make up their minds about what’s going on, perceptions do matter. Mr. Bush should have seen those developments as a threat to Israel and should have advised the Israelis to be cautious of civilian casualties. The leaders at the G-8 summit disagreed over Mr. Bush’s tone and criticized Israel for using disproportionate force.

Mr. Bush, aligning with those leaders, in fact, could have opened him to questions about U.S. involvement in Iraq. Since the Cold War ended, the dominance of the one superpower has been the subject of great skepticism and debate. The heightened strife between Israel and Lebanon could be seen as a proxy war between Israel and Iran or the United States and Iran, and therefore a challenge to the international balance of power.

Some in the Bush administration have thought they should reach out to Islamists. They believed that with the Turkish military guarding the country’s secular regime, Islamists could not be a threat in that country. They provided prestigious meetings in Washington for a while. And some in Turkey started to question how much Washington really knows its only Muslim ally in NATO. When Hamas leader Khaleed Meshaal visited Ankara as the new head of the Palestinian Authority, Washington sent mixed messages about whether or not it favored the AKP communicating with Hamas before the group recognizes Israel and agrees to disarm.

The Bush administration’s problem is its general approach to sensitive issues, especially in relation to political Islam — which serves no one well. No one can say for certain that the AKP government is trying to change the regime with cosmetic details. But some facts are worth knowing, especially if Mr. Erdogan will be the trusted ally to use his power to bring the bloodshed down.

Michael Rubin, an expert on Turkey at the American Enterprise Institute, said: “[I]n May 2006 alone — according to Turkish Central Bank statistics — more than $1 billion was unaccounted for. This is money that entered the economy, and no one knows where it came from. Since the AKP came to power, unaccounted-for money has exceeded $10 billion. In contrast, the year before the party came to power, net error in accounting was only about $110 million.”

If this money were coming from EU member countries or the United States, it would be accounted for. But last week, Mr. Erdogan said he knows Saudi businessman Yasin al-Qadi to be very benevolent and charitable. Mr. Rubin notes: “[T]he U.N. has labeled al-Qadi a terrorist financier and frozen his assets. Al-Qadi helped fund the murder of hundreds of civilians.”

The Islamist mentality needs to come up with a solution to end the occupation. We know what Iran’s solution is. But Mr. Erdogan, while agreeing to a strategic vision statement with Washington less than a month ago, is asking: “What is the problem of Israel? Do they want to destroy the whole Palestine and occupy it all?” His rhetoric omits the responsibilities of Hamas and Hezbollah.

What’s more, it is evident that Mr. Meshaal and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of the Palestinian Authority, who is also from Hamas, do not see everything eye to eye. Mr. Haniya has accepted legislation that acknowledges the existence of Israel. Mr. Meshaal still denies it.

Therefore, Cpl. Shalit’s capture could be a sign that the radical wing of Hamas has hijacked the Palestinian Authority. And Mr. Meshaal could very well have the blessing of Iran and Syria for this operation. The United States needs to stay out of this conflict “militarily” — it’s the only way to defuse the Iranian game. But Washington should think hard about whether it can trust Mr. Erdogan’s government.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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