A five-man delegation from the Hamas movement, headed by leader Khaled Meshaal, arrived in the Turkish capital Thursday, provoking harsh criticism from Israel and concern from U.S. officials.
It was first announced that the delegation would be received by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But hours after the group arrived, the prime minister’s office said there would be no meeting.
A Turkish official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Erdogan changed his mind in part because of intense pressure from the Bush administration.
Instead, Meshaal and the delegation met with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul at the headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development Party.
“It is hard to understand why these people went to Turkey,” Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for the Israeli government told a private Turkish news channel. “It is a serious mistake; this visit could have serious consequences for our links that could be hard to repair.”
A Middle East expert at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University also said that the meeting could prove to be a mistake for Turkey. “It was a premature and ill-calculated move,” Hasan Koni said.
It was unclear why Turkey decided to receive Meshaal even before his party, which swept Palestinian parliamentary elections three weeks ago, formed a government. U.S. and Israeli officials insist they will have nothing to do with a Hamas administration unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement after the talks saying, “The Hamas delegation was reminded of the expectations of the international community and of the importance of adopting a judicious, pragmatic and conciliatory approach.”
Gul defended the meeting, saying it took place at the request of Hamas and that Turkey’s role was to help ensure that Israelis and Palestinians can coexist peacefully. Since Hamas “won a democratic election, from now on it must act in a democratic way,” he said.
Russian officials also have said they are willing to meet with Hamas.
President Vladimir V. Putin said last week that he would invite leaders of the militant group to Moscow, and Russian officials said they would impress on Hamas the need to stop terrorist activities and recognize Israel.
Hamas officials said they would be delighted to visit Moscow.
In Ankara, the Turkish capital, U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson told reporters that the most important thing in any meeting with Hamas was conveying the message that it must renounce violence.
Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel and has enjoyed close ties, including strong military cooperation.
But the relationship has suffered setbacks in recent years. Tensions peaked in 2004 when Erdogan accused Israel of “state terrorism” against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Turkey also accused Israel of secretly arming and training Iraq’s ethnic Kurds to help them establish an independent state that could serve as a counterweight to hostile Arab regimes and also as an inspiration for Turkey’s own restive minority Kurdish population.
Arab observers said that although the decision to meet the Hamas delegation put it out of line with the United States and the European Union, it would earn Turkey respect in the Arab world.
“The Arab people will be very impressed and grateful to Turkey for showing such courage,” said Yusuf Shareef, a Jordanian commentator.