ÇAĞIL M. KASAPOĞLU
Hürriyet Daily News
BEIRUT: A powerful Druze leader in Lebanon has underlined the increasing influence of Turkey in the Middle East as the Arab world has been undergoing turmoil over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Turkey is playing an important role in its region, Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party, or PSP, said March 5 in an interview with the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
At his residence in the heart of Beirut, decorated with a mix of Oriental- and Western-style furniture, with Buddha statues alongside his everyday working desk, Jumblatt said that while half of the Arab world has been in a coma, Turkey has been supporting the Arab world’s main cause, which is, he said, the Palestinian cause.
“At one time, some Turks rightly or wrongly have accused Arabs of betraying them during World War I, but now, with the new policy of Turkey and also of Syria, we have to admit that Turkish-Arab resentment is over,” Jumblatt said when asked whether Turkey is distancing itself from the West through the recent rapprochement with its eastern neighbors.
Though he praised U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last year, Jumblatt also said the June 4, 2009, address lacked practical implications, whereas Turkey, with its active involvement as a mediator, is the major determining factor for the Middle East peace talks.
Citing Turkey’s Ottoman roots to define today’s Arab world, the Druze leader said, “At the time, the Ottoman Empire was the ‘sick man of Europe,’ and nowadays it’s the Arab world that is the sick man.”
The Arab League gave the green light to Palestinians on March 3 to enter indirect talks with Israel; the motion, however, was tabled after Israel announced its plan to expand Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem.
Supporting limited negotiations with the Israeli government is giving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a clear-cut victory after all, Jumblatt said. “Netanyahu will now say, ‘I’ve been colonizing the West Bank, I’ve been attacking the holy places like Haram al-Khalil and nobody is there challenging me now,’” he said.
After his visit to Turkey in February, the Druze leader seemed impressed by the democratic initiatives started by the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. As a neighboring country to the Arab world, Turkey is now the only successful experiment of democracy in the region, the only one that respects the rules of democracy, he said.
Nevertheless, Jumblatt said he believes that the same levels of democracy and development fail to apply for the rest of the Middle East. Referring to the latest report by the United Nations Development Programme on human development in Arab states for 2009, he reiterated that the Arab world has long suffered due to low literacy rates and fundamentalism, which he said is becoming “more depressing every year than before.”
Apart from diplomatic relations, Turkey’s growing economic ties in the region are also very much appreciated by the Druze leader, who is a successful businessman as well.
Turkey has recently lifted visa requirements for Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, leading to the creation of a visa-free Middle East for the country. The direct involvement of Turkey aimed not only to increase diplomatic relations but also to augment trade capacity amongst the Middle Eastern states.
The visa-free zone should be further developed for the benefit of each actor in the region, Jumblatt said, using the European Union as an example of how more embedded trade relations in the Middle East could work. Disputes in the EU ended with the creation of a common market in Europe, he said.
“When the Germans and French in the ’50s decided to build new relationships starting with the abolishment of the taxes and barriers on steel at that time… they stopped fighting after having the bloodshed of World War I and World War II,” Jumblatt said.
He added that the Arab world needs to develop economic ties, keeping the European common market in mind, in order to set up healthier and more peaceful relations in the Middle East.
In addition to regional developments, Jumblatt also stressed the growing trade capacity with Cyprus. In order to further strengthen economic development, he added, both Turkish and Greek Cypriots should create an “acceptable environment.”
He expressed his hope that this would not become as complicated as the Palestinian issue.
‘Lebanon must improve ties with Syria’
With his political maneuvering and ability to emerge on the winning side of Lebanon’s civil war and its aftermath, Jumblatt is seen by his critics as the country’s “political weathervane.”
Jumblatt, who heads the country’s Druze community, recently occupied headlines with his controversial decision to leave the pro-Western March 14 Alliance of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to ally himself with the opposition, the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance.
While Jumblatt’s critics say his alliance with the Hezbollah-led coalition has complicated already tense negotiations over the new Lebanese government, Jumblatt believes the close relations with Damascus on both political and economic issues must be maintained as stated in the 1989 Taif Accord.
The importance of such relations is even evidenced by the government, Jumblatt said, citing al-Hariri’s December meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
The two held “constructive” talks, ending five years of animosity between Syria and a broad political alliance led by al-Hariri that stemmed from the assassination of al-Hariri’s father, Rafiq al-Hariri, in a massive Beirut car-bombing in February 2005.
A United Nations inquiry in June said it had evidence that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services were linked to the killing yet Damascus has consistently denied any involvement.
“After all we have to accept the fact that we are allies. We have only one enemy, which is Israel,” said Jumblatt, who was a vocal supporter of Syria following the civil war but campaigned against Syrian influence in Lebanon after the death of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
Jumblatt said there is a visible increase in Israeli aggression directed toward Lebanon in recent times. Ultimately, the Druze leader said the only chance for peace with Israel is if they give the Palestinians the rights they deserve.
“I’m proud that my father [Kamal Jumblatt] defended the Palestinian cause and died for the Palestinian cause.”
The senior Jumblatt was one of Lebanon’s most veteran political figures and was founder of the Progressive Socialist Party of Lebanon, or PSP, which united leftist parties with a secular pan-Arab ideology and supported the Palestinian nationalist movement.
Walid Jumblatt’s father was assassinated in 1977.