Turkish PM visits Israel to improve ties
* Erdogan offers to play peacemaker
JERUSALEM: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived on his first official visit to Israel on Sunday, stressing the strength of ties with the Jewish state and offering to mediate for peace in the Middle East.
After arriving at Tel Aviv airport, Erdogan was due to meet with his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon and President Moshe Katsav in Jerusalem during a two-day visit which will also see him head to the West Bank for talks with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.
“I will tell my interlocutors again that should the parties request, Turkey is ready to help, be it mediation or hosting conferences on its soil,” Erdogan told reporters on his departure at Ankara airport.
“I will have the opportunity to discuss with them the concrete steps that can be taken to preserve the current atmosphere of calm and to revitalise the peace process,” he added.
The visit is seen as highly symbolic for Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party has strong Islamist roots although he has stressed his commitment to secularism.
Muslim-majority Turkey sparked anger in the Arab world back in 1996 when it hammered out a military cooperation deal with Israel.
However, Israel was deeply disturbed about the state of the political relationship in May last year when Erdogan described a deadly Israeli army raid on a Palestinian refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip as “state terror”.
Relations took a further dive the following month when Turkey temporarily recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv and its consul general in Jerusalem for “consultations”.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom sought to smooth over the differences Sunday, saying that Erdogan’s visit “illustrates the fact that the two countries have stable, close, intimate relations”.
“It also proves that moderate Islam can easily engage in dialogue with Israel,” Shalom added.
An Israeli foreign ministry source said that the differences that first emerged with Erdogan, who was elected in 2003, had now been resolved.
“At the beginning, relations with the prime minister (Erdogan) were rather cold as a result of some intemperate declarations but the misunderstandings have been cleared up and the tone has changed,” he told AFP.
In an interview published Sunday, Erdogan said that his “visit will hopefully provide a new impetus to our friendship”.
But he also defended his previous criticism, telling the English-language Turkish Daily News that “our good relations with Israel do not preclude us from making frank criticism.”
The visit is expected to focus heavily on bilateral trade, with around 100 businessmen accompanying Erdogan to Israel. afp