Let Them Mediate

Turkey is perhaps the only country (apart from the United States) in which the public, at least, continues to respect Israel. Welcome, Abdullah Gul - and if the Turks want to mediate, let them mediate.

Just one day after Turkey was informed that maybe 15 years down the line it would be a European country, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Damascus. It was no more than a reciprocal visit and Israel has no reason to get upset, Ankara said. The Turks also said Israel had no cause to be unduly impressed by the commercial cooperation deal the two countries struck, because, after all, Turkey does far greater trade with Israel. The difference, however, is that Syria is on the U.S. blacklist, whereas Israel is not, Israeli representatives said.

"But Turkey has a political interest in maintaining relations with Syria - you know, that Iraqi thing and that Kurdish thing," the Turks explained. Whereas you, the Israelis, don't allow others to take part in the political process.

That's because you, the Turks, called Sharon a terrorist and his policy state terror, the Israelis explained, also wanting to know why for the past two years, since the establishment of the Erdogan government, not one Turkish official has visited Israel. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul will tomorrow try to replace this diplomatic hardball, in which Erdogan has dusted Israeli batters a few times, with a more friendly game.

Because Yasser Arafat has passed away and senior officials are now "permitted" to visit the Palestinian Authority without risking an Israeli boycott, Gul can play the role of the objective umpire in Israel one day and in the PA the next. Very secretly, he will whisper to the prime minister, and perhaps also to the president, Syrian President Bashar Assad's conditions for returning the body of Israeli spy Eli Cohen to Israel (the Syrians executed Cohen in 1965). That was the most important diplomatic mission that Israel assigned Erdogan ahead of his visit to Syria last month.

If the response proves satisfactory, Israel may nod in assent if Turkey asks for another mediation assignment. This time, though, it will be something a little more serious: to try to create some sort of dialogue between Israel and Syria. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom is not against the idea - after all, talk is not an agreement, still less a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Moreover, if Turkey is the mediator, it will be understood from the outset that the initiative is not serious, because it's only when the White House gets involved that people become excited. In general, Turkey and Israel are very much twin states in one sense, but neither is capable of influencing the other's acceptance in the part of the world that interests it.

Israel cannot influence the position of the European Union, and Turkey cannot influence the position of the Arab states toward Israel. Both Israel and Turkey are "suspicious objects" in each of those spheres. At the same time, each of them possesses a quality that is essential for the other: Israel can accord Turkey a status of political importance in a region that is not adopting Ankara, and Turkey has already proved more than once that it will not let its relations with Iran and Syria dictate its relations with Israel. But here's the problem: If Israel allows Turkey to mediate between it and Syria, Washington might get angry.

It is this matter that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage will try to work out today and tomorrow. He will travel from Ankara to Damascus in order to try to obtain Syrian public agreement to work against infiltrators from Syria into Iraq. Gul, who will meet with Armitage, will be able to brief Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the meeting, and Sharon will already know whether Turkey can be given a mediation permit. Because it's on that permit, or at least on "readiness to consider positively Turkey's involvement," that the most important event depends: Erdogan's visit to Israel at the end of the month. That is something that should be taken very seriously. Because in the past four years Israel has lost its ability to choose its friends. Turkey is perhaps the only country (apart from the United States) in which the public, at least, continues to respect Israel, even if its political leadership is distinctly cool to Jerusalem. In the meantime, welcome, Abdullah Gul - and if the Turks want to mediate, let them mediate.