Erdogan - AP - 2.2012
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right. Photo by AP
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Is negotiating with terror organizations allowed? In Israel we already know the answer. It is. If the objective is to release a captive soldier, achieve a prisoner exchange or seal a cease-fire, negotiations aren't only allowed, they're desirable.

Even Washington doesn't turn its back on terror groups when negotiations serve its interests. For example, it is now trying to reach agreements with the Taliban in Afghanistan, just as it cooperated with local militias, some of them clearly terrorist, to establish order in Iraq.

Now it's Turkey's turn to present its position on negotiations with its terrorists - militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK. Ankara decided in 2010 to negotiate with the group, which not only Turkey defines as a terror organization. The battle, which began in the mid-1980s, has caused more than 40,000 deaths and economic damage in the billions of dollars.

The decision to talk was a very tough one for Ankara, which not only declared the war against Kurdish terror a linchpin of its domestic policy, but also invested most of its military resources in that conflict. Turkey crossed its borders to attack the organization in Iraq; it also partly based its relations with Syria and Iran on cooperation in the war against the PKK and bought Israeli-made Heron drones to that end. But even the Turkish government knows there's no decisive military solution to terror and that without an agreement with the PKK the war will continue for generations.

The affair explodes

So in 2010, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan clandestinely sent the head of the National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan, and two aides to Oslo to talk with the Kurdistan Workers' Party. A year later the affair blew up when a video clip of part of the talks was shown on the Internet.

That was the chance Erdogan's rivals had been waiting for, especially the ultranationalists, who oppose any talks with the PKK. Although the talks were unproductive, they revealed that the Turkish government was willing to make far-reaching offers to the PKK if it agreed to lay down its arms.

Not only did the story embarrass Erdogan greatly, it made public the disputes among the authorities - between the judicial system and the government and between the police and intelligence, which is part of the defense establishment.

The climax was the prosecutor general's demand to investigate Fidan and his aides regarding the talks, due to suspicions of cooperation between the National Intelligence Organization and the PKK. The police blame the intelligence organization for the fact that this alleged cooperation helped the terrorists carry out attacks and frustrated the intelligence efforts of the police, who are busy battling the PKK and its political infrastructure all over Turkey.

Erdogan, who returned to full-time work this week after his second bout of intestinal surgery, found himself in the center of a political storm. If he opposes the interrogation of his loyal adviser Fidan - who has also become his special envoy for Iranian affairs and the Syrian crisis - he will be working against his policy that defense officials should be kept away from politics and the civil judicial system should be allowed to try military and defense officials. If he allows the investigation to go on, he could be exposed as the one who gave the order to negotiate with a terror group.

Erdogan chose a third way; this puts him in the company of the previous generation's leaders, who did everything to protect the defense establishment and prevent it from being undermined by the civilian authorities.

Turmoil in Turkish politics

With unprecedented speed Erdogan passed a law in parliament, where his Justice and Development Party has a large majority. Under the law, interrogating members of the intelligence organization requires the prime minister's approval. Offhandedly, the summoning of senior intelligence officers to an investigation was canceled, and the prosecutor who summoned them was removed from the probe, with the explanation that he had exceeded his authority.

This new law, which was also approved by President Abdullah Gul, is causing turmoil in Turkish politics, as expected, especially in light of the intention to write a new constitution in the coming year. Even politicians in the ruling party are finding it hard to explain how it conforms with Erdogan's "battle for democracy."

Anger at the law, which is designed to conceal the government's contacts with a terror group, also - and perhaps mainly - stems from the fact that Turkish journalists are being tried for statements on the Kurdish issue. In February about 40 journalists were arrested in a police action against Kurdish organizations on suspicions they supported a terror organization.

Turkey, incidentally, is in 148th place among the 179 countries that restrict freedom of the press. According to Reporters Without Borders, 7,749 lawsuits against the Turkish government were submitted to the European Court of Human Rights last year.

Turkey has become the hope of the Syrian rebellion and of Arab and Western countries as the country that can act against the oppression by Syrian President Bashar Assad. But at home it still behaves as if freedom of expression were a malignant disease.