Turkey's Prime Minister on the violent stalemates in Syria and Libya, the Israel-Palestine peace process, and the roadblocks to EU membership for his nation
Tell me how you see this extraordinary event in your region, this Arab Spring?
With these recent developments in Tunisia and which went on to Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and all, democracy and freedom demands are affecting us whether we like it or not. At this point in time in Tunisia, there is tranquility. In Egypt, there is also some tranquility ... and activities going on to set up a government.
And then we have Syria. Our attitude toward Syria is different ... because we share a common border of 800 kilometers. Our relations with Syria are much more meaningful. It's like a domestic affair to us. Just a short while ago, about 300 Syrians sought refuge in our country because of the recent developments in theirs. In the meantime, I had some contact. In Libya, I had a meeting with Mr. Qaddafi. In Syria, I met with Mr. Assad. The people want freedom. People want independence. And they see these as their right—like water, like bread.
Why did you respond to the people in the street, as some say, later rather than sooner?
In Tunisia and in Egypt we addressed the street first of all, because the street was beyond a point, their demand was irreversible. However, with respect to Libya, it's a bit different. There, we were thinking that Qaddafi could manage the situation, manage the process. Our citizens—and citizens of other countries—their evacuation was an immediate concern for us. ... Bashar [Assad] is a good friend of mine. We had a long discussion a year ago: lifting the state of emergency, the release of political prisoners. We discussed these issues and changing the election system. However, he was late in taking these steps. I hope he immediately takes these steps.
Do you tell him it's time to go?
In the beginning [of the protests] the people said: "We're pleased with Bashar, but we want to use our democratic rights." The final decision will be made by the people of Syria, of course. And I hope that Syria is not damaged by this. That's how we want to see our neighbor in the decades and centuries ahead.
Has NATO gone too far in Libya?
Now [Qaddafi] is suffering through the death of his son and his three grandchildren, if this is true. And this is not something bearable. We don't like to see it happening. But on the other hand, people are being killed, children and women.
I want to ask you about the recent reconciliation of Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. Do you approve? Is it a good idea?
Yes, I am very pleased with what happened. Let me express it very clearly. This is what we wanted to see for many years. I spent a lot of effort as Prime Minister for many years to bring them together. Because if peace will come to the Middle East, it will start from the internal peace in Palestine. The West should support this process. If it doesn't, it will be a pity for the Middle East.
Secretary of State Clinton said the U.S. wouldn't rule out talking to Hamas if they recognize Israel and stop engaging in terrorism.
Let me give you a very clear message: I don't see Hamas as a terror organization. Hamas has emerged as a political party, and they entered into elections. ... Of course, there is a need for mutual understanding. Israel, in many of their steps, they are terrorizing. They attacked our humanitarian assistance flotilla. And they didn't apologize. In the Middle East we have accepted the statehood of Israel and Palestine. We recommend this to everybody.
There's a sense of Turkey wanting to act as a bridge to the West. Is there any diminution in your interest in joining the European Union?
Let me tell you something. With the EU, this process of ours started in 1959. We are at the doors of the European Union, and it still doesn't accept Turkey as a member. And what do we lack? There are countries among the 27 members that are well behind us. We are doing our best to become a member, but unfortunately, the European Union just continues changing the rules of the game.
In the end, will your economic power bring the EU to you?
We want the see the European Union as an alliance of civilizations. We are in Europe. There are 5 million Turkish citizens living and working in the EU. And now, just imagine, Turkey is the sixth-largest economy in Europe.
And the 17th-largest in the world.
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