- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus - A terse joint communique by Turkey and Egypt has set the stage for a stronger role by Muslim countries in the search for peace in the Middle East, diplomats say.

Their pledge of “effective and constructive efforts” toward a solution in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, issued last week, also indicated the tone for the planned high-level international conference on Iraq that Turkey will host next month.

Turkey, a NATO ally, apparently hopes to join forces with other Muslim states in the region to replace dominant Western diplomacy led by the United States.

Diplomats in the region said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent swing through the area has produced few prospects for a significant breakthrough.

What appeared to be a Turkish-Egyptian initiative emerged during Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s brief visit to Turkey. After a joint press conference, Mr. Mubarak and his Turkish counterpart, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, issued the statement speaking of “effective and constructive efforts toward regional peace and stability through cooperation and solidarity.”

The two presidents did not elaborate and did not take any questions.

Diplomats point to a decisive Turkish foreign policy shift toward the Middle East as Ankara finds its application for EU membership stalled and relations with the United States chilled over what the Turks perceive to be an American backing for a Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

Opinion polls show that fewer than 50 percent of Turks want to join the European Union, even though the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that EU membership is the cornerstone of its foreign policy.

“Foreign policy is definitely taking a more Islamic tone,” said Turkish analyst Ali Tekin. “Erdogan’s agenda and that of the EU are now on a collision course.”

Commented the English-language New Anatolian daily: “The loss of faith in the EU process increases interest and involvement in the Middle East.”

Diplomats said Turkey was “more than annoyed” at not being invited to the European Union’s 50th anniversary festivities in Berlin and at a refusal to admit Turkish among the union’s official languages. Turkey’s EU negotiations are stymied over Ankara’s refusal to recognize the Greek-Cypriot government.

The gradual but tangible shift in Turkey’s policy was highlighted last year by Mr. Erdogan’s trips to several Muslim countries, ranging as far as Indonesia, and his criticism of Israeli action against the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. At one stage, Mr. Erdogan was quoted as saying, “Israel is trying to wipe out the Palestinians.”

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