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Turkey at ​the Crossroads

April 9, 2009
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Israel and the West have much at stake in Turkey, which is why President Barack Obama's visit there this week was watched so closely. Turkey sits at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, a secular democracy with a Muslim majority, some of whom worry that an Islamic state could displace the status quo.

Obama used his address to the Turkish Parliament to further his policy of outreach to the Muslim world, declaring that the United States "is not, and will never be, at war with Islam." He also used the opportunity to reiterate his commitment to pursuing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Obama's choice of Turkey to end his European tour was an astute one. He sought to re-establish good relations with a NATO ally that has long considered itself closer to the West than the East and can be helpful in attaining certain foreign policy goals, including those in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But while Turks might find comfort both in Obama's outreach and his "even-handedness" in articulating his Middle East policy, both they and he should remember that Turkey's greatest strength will come from its moderation.

Turkey has a long and complicated relationship with Israel and the Jewish community.

For years, Turkey has been Israel's strongest ally in the Muslim world. It was the first such country to recognize the Jewish state; the two nations enjoy robust trade relations, including a huge Israeli tourism industry; and just last December, Turkey signed a defense contract to buy more than $140 million in surveillance equipment. In the past year, Turkey played the role of intermediary between Israel and Syria in their tentative steps toward peace talks.

But Turkey's role has been compromised in recent months. First, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stalked off the stage during a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos in January. While his outburst over Israel's war with Hamas in Gaza may have earned him hero status among many in the Muslim world and scored points among some of his constituents at home, it did nothing to convince Israel or the West that he understood Israeli security concerns and the need to combat terror.

Similarly, he has repeatedly rejected the position of Israel and the West by insisting, as he did in a New York Times interview on the eve of Obama's visit, that Hamas is a legitimate player that should be brought to the table.

Turkey has long sought the help of U.S. Jews to help block a resolution in Congress that condemns the genocide of more than 1 million Armenians, which Turkey insists was not a genocide.

It also continues to seek entry into the European Union. Even as it continues to straddle West and East, it must demonstrate its continued commitment to fight for democracy and against terror. Let hope that Obama's visit will spark a renewed commitment to that goal.

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