Fresh off his public spat with President Shimon Peres in Davos, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to make waves in the murky waters of Middle East diplomacy, slamming Israel's policy of boycotting Hamas in Gaza.
Jerusalem has effectively turned the coastal area into "an open-air prison," Erdogan said in an interview with the Washington Post.
In remarks reported by the Post on Saturday, the Turkish premier said Israel and Syria were "very close" to initiating direct peace talks just days before the start of the Israel Defense Forces offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Erdogan also revealed that it was he who arranged a secret meeting in Istanbul two years ago between the foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan, the nuclear-armed Muslim country which does not have diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.
According to the prime minister, Turkey was awaiting a reply from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert regarding Israel's position on peace talks with Syria, which had been mediated by Ankara. On the night of December 23, Erdogan said Israel and Syria were "very close" to moving to direct peace talks on the future of the Golan Heights.
"We were trying to be [Israel's] hope," Erdogan told the Post. "Olmert's last sentence [as he left] was, 'As soon as I get back I will consult with my colleagues and get back to you.' As I waited for his response, . . . on December 27, bombs started falling on Gaza." Erdogan denied his anger at Israel stems from Olmert's failure to inform him of the impending Gaza operation.
Erdogan, who offered Ankara's services in negotiating the release the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, reiterated his fierce criticism of Israeli policy towards Hamas.
"The world has not respected the political will of the Palestinian people," the premier told The Washington Post. "On the one hand, we defend democracy and we try our best to keep democracy in the Middle East, but on the other hand we do not respect the outcome of . . . the ballot box. Palestine today is an open-air prison. Hamas, as much as they tried, could not change the situation. Just imagine, you imprison the speaker of a country as well as some ministers of its government and members of its parliament. And then you expect them to sit obediently?"
"There had not been any casualties in Israel since the cease-fire of June 2008," Erdogan said. "The Israelis claim that missiles were being sent [from Gaza]. I asked Prime Minister Olmert, how many people died as a result of those missiles? ...The United Nations Security Council makes a decision, and Israel announces it does not recognize the decision. I'm not saying that Hamas is a good organization and makes no mistakes. They have made mistakes. But I am evaluating the end result."
"We have a serious relationship [with Israel]," Erdogan told the Post. "But the current Israeli government should check itself. They should not exploit this issue for the upcoming elections in Israel."
Peres called Erdogan on Friday following the blow-up at the World Economic Forum in Davos in a bid to soothe the tensions.
On Thursday, Erdogan stormed off the stage after he was cut off by the forum moderator and barred from responding to Peres' defense of Israel's 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Turkish media outlets reported that Peres had apologized to Erdogan during their five-minute phone conversation, but Peres' office denied the report, saying that the purpose of the telephone call was simply to ensure that the "crisis won't deteriorate."
Peres: Arab critics of Hamas fearful of speaking out
In an interview with CNN, Peres said many of the Arab states who publicly slammed Israel during its offensive in the Gaza Strip last month have privately approached him and urged Jerusalem to "bring an end to them."
"[T]he people who support [us], in my judgment, are the majority [and they] are silent," Peres said on the sidelines of the Davos gathering. "They are afraid to appear publicly. There is a double-standard reaction to what we did there [in Gaza]."
"Israel is not against Gaza, not against the Gazan people," Peres told CNN. "We don't think we destroyed Gaza. We think Hamas destroyed Gaza. We left Gaza completely. We supply them daily all the time, water, fuel. The story about that we tried to cut the supplies to Gaza is simply a story."
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