Turkey, seething with anger after an Israeli raid on an aid ship bound for Gaza, hosts leaders from Russia, Iran, the Arab world and beyond this week for a Eurasian security summit that may further isolate Israel.
The guest list for the meeting in Istanbul of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), reads like a “who’s who” of leaders from world hot spots, with participants from the Middle East, South Asia and the Korean Peninsula.
Israel is one of 20 members of the forum, but has decided to send a diplomat from its consulate, an Israeli embassy official said on Sunday, rather than expose a more senior figure to the fury generated by the killing of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists in the Israeli commando operation last Monday.
Turkey is expected to try to raise pressure on Israel to end the four-year old blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza during a conference on Monday which precedes Tuesday’s full summit.
The diplomatic momentum will continue on Wednesday, as Arab League foreign ministers gather in Istanbul for the Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum.
Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim member, has sought to raise its international profile in recent years. Positioned next to countries along the Gulf and Caspian Sea, where most of the world’s oil and gas is found, Turkey holds geostrategic value in a conflict-prone region.
It wants to join the European Union and become a major regional power, shedding the straitjacket of its Cold War era role as ally of the West.
Critics caution that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning government risks tilting too far in trying to forge stronger ties with Middle East governments the West does not trust.
While CICA aspires to ideals of collective security to minimise threats of conflict within its region there are several hard core enemies of Israel among its diverse membership.
Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas are among eight presidents participating in the Eurasian summit. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, though not a member, is attending as a guest.
Plenty of discussion is expected to focus on Israel and the blockade it says is necessary to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of Hamas militants in Gaza. But other topics, including Afghanistan, will also be debated.
“Afghanistan and Gaza are equally test cases for us,” Turkish Foreign Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Unal Cevikoz told a news conference on Saturday.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is to meet Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi before the summit in a trilateral spearheaded by Turkey to build confidence between two deeply suspicious neighbours who are both fighting Taliban militants.
Cevikoz said he did not expect the meeting to focus much on Iran’s nuclear programme, despite momentum for a new sanctions resolution against the Islamic Republic in the U.N. Security Council.
Turkey, with Brazil’s help, brokered an accord with Iran last month for a nuclear fuel swap, in the hope of heading off sanctions against a fellow Muslim neighbour, major trading partner and key supplier of gas.
There will be an inevitable focus on any exchanges between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Ahmadinejad, after the Iranian leader sharply criticised the Kremlin for supporting a draft sanctions resolution.
China will be represented at the Istanbul summit by State Councillor Dai Bingguo, a high-ranking foreign policy official, while India is sending a trade minister.
CICA was first established in the early 1990s by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose country hosted the only two previous summits, the last one four years ago.
(Editing by Noah Barkin)