Former U.S. congressman Robert Wexler, who recently resigned from his congressional seat, made a visit to Ankara last week. Known as both a friend of Turkey and a staunch supporter of Israel’s foreign policies, Wexler’s trip to Ankara and meeting with Turkish president Abdullah Gül was too important to overlook, according to Washington sources who followed the visit closely.
Wexler has had an important profile in Washington, especially for bringing a few specialties together. He had served in the House of Representatives since 1997, representing the important 19th district of Florida, and was selected as one of the 50 most influential names in the U.S. Congress by Congressional Quarterly in 2008. The politician’s importance to Turkey is also notable, as he was the cofounder of the Caucus on U.S.-Turkish Relations, which now has more than 70 members.
Last October, Wexler announced that he would retire by the new year, and did so earlier this month. Abandoning his House seat to head a think tank, the Center for Middle East Peace, which works toward reconciliation in the Middle East, was a move that perplexed some in the beginning. Many thought that since Wexler was one of the earliest supporters of the Obama campaign and was known to be close to the Obama team, especially the president’s right-hand man Rahm Emanuel, that he would take a job in the White House. Wexler’s early support for Obama in 2007 had made him another strong bridge between the Jewish community and the Obama team.
When retiring from his congressional seat, Wexler said in a statement that he regretted leaving before the end of his term, but added that “I truly believe there is no time to waste” on achieving Middle East peace. “[We] are at a unique and critically tense moment in the history of the Middle East with both significant opportunities to succeed in the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as major challenges involving Iran, Hamas and al-Qaeda,” he said.
As a co-head of the Turkish caucus in the House, Wexler’s congressional office was a constant destination for the various visiting Turkish delegations that came to Washington. As someone with proximity to both the hawkish Jewish lobby AIPAC and to Turkish officials, Wexler was able to find common ground to make gains for all fronts, including for the U.S., since the strong and unyielding alliance between the three was unquestionable until recently.
However, things started to change a while ago. Since the now-infamous Davos summit, Turkey’s criticism of Israel has become heavier. As the relationship between the two countries underwent dramatic changes during the past year, Wexler found it increasingly difficult to pick and employ those common expediencies that were once easily achievable.
For instance, when Wexler participated the inaugural three-day conference of J Street, a young liberal Jewish lobby group whose policies related to the Arab/Israel peace process mostly coincide with those of the Obama administration, he felt obliged to blast Turkey for excluding Israel from the “Anatolian Eagle” annual joint air-force exercise. In addition, Wexler argued in the same speech in Washington at the end of last October – at which I was also present, sharing my own observations of the conference in two different columns – the U.S. government had displayed its anger by withdrawing its participation from the same joint military exercise in reaction to Turkey’s attitude toward Israel.
These changing dynamics in the relationship between Turkey and Israel, however, did not necessarily extinguish Wexler’s importance in the U.S.-Turkey-Israel relationship triangle. Particularly Wexler’s proximity to the White House and chief of staff Emanuel helped keep his profile afloat. According to one Washington source, Wexler’s Ankara visit and meeting with Gül was also encouraged by Emanuel’s White House office.
So what was the reason behind the meeting? The reason was to look for ways to repair the Turkish-Israel relationship, which especially went sour after the recent Ayalon-Celikkol “low-seat crisis.” In this latest crisis, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon didn’t shake hands with Turkish Ambassador to Israel Ahmet Oguz Celikkol on-camera in their meeting, and was heard telling the Israeli media crew in Hebrew that the important thing was that people see Celikkol sitting down low “while we’re up high.” After this insult to Turkey, however, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited Turkey last Sunday and both sides acted as if there was no crisis between the two countries.
Since the script of the Gül-Wexler meeting is not publicly available, it is hard to say what went on in the meeting. However, in light of the revelations of the Washington sources who follow the White House and the Turkish side closely, it seems the visit was primarily made to convince Gül to play a more positive role and view Turkey-Israel relations tenderly. With the Iranian nuclear crisis boiling, a rift between Turkey and Israel would be the last bad news that the White House could ask for.
While Obama’s foreign policies and initiatives have been tumbling into one another, and chief of staff Emanuel’s resignation is widely discussed in Washington and on TV talk shows, having Turkey and Israel on different sides right before a huge regional conflict unravels in the Middle East complicates matters even more for the White House.
It is important to watch statements coming from Turkish officials about Turkey-Israel relations from now on, lest the sides just accept that the rift between the two countries is too big to repair in the near future.