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LEBANON, TURKEY: Erdogan addresses Israel, shows off Turkish projects

November 25, 2010 |  6:55 am


For the second time in two months, a regional leader has addressed Israel in Lebanon.

This time, however, the words were a lot less harsh.

In a speech delivered in northern Lebanon on Wednesday, Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the tiny country's neighbor Israel to embrace peace and stop "provocations," for its own good.

"The Israeli government has to see and understand this: if there is peace in this region, Israel wins as much as the region. If there is war and clash in this region, Israeli citizens are harmed as much as the people in the region," he was quoted as saying by Turkey's semiofficial Anatolia news agency during his official visit to Lebanon. "Thus, we, one more time, invite Israel to peace, return from its mistakes and apologize both for the interest of Israel and the people in the region."

Erdogan's remarks were far more diplomatically worded and more conciliatory than the tirade Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered in south Lebanon last month, in which he said that "the world should understand that the Zionists will go."

But despite his carefully chosen words, Erdogan was clear in his message.

He called on Israel to immediately put an end to its "provoking activities" which he said put the region and the world in danger, according to the Anatolia news agency.

The Turkish leader is on a two-day visit to Lebanon accompanied by several Turkish ministers in a bid to enhance cooperation between the two countries and to promote peace and calm amid mounting political tensions over a tribunal examining the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The United Nations tribunal is expected to indict high-ranking members of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah for involvement in Hariri's killing, and it is feared such an indictment could spark strife between Lebanon's Sunni and Shiite communities.

"The Middle East is passing in a very sensitive period and Turkey supports Lebanon," Erdogan said at a press conference in Beirut on Wednesday. "We think that we should unite and Lebanon should be freed from this tensed atmosphere. I think there is a benefit in helping Lebanon in this respect, and we hope that Lebanon would be able to avoid this tension and regain stability to become a shining star in the future."

He has had a busy schedule since his arrival, shuttling between the Lebanese capital and the northern parts of the country Wednesday, where he inaugurated a Turkish-funded school and visited an ethnic Turkmen village. Back in Beirut, he signed a free trade agreement between Lebanon and Turkey with his Lebanese counterpart Saad Hariri.

"This agreement is a new beginning for the relations between Lebanon and Turkey and its conclusion reflects our continuous commitment to develop the strong economic and commercial relations between us," Hariri said at the press conference.

Earlier this year, it was also agreed that Syria and Jordan be included in the free trade zone.

Lebanon-turkey1Erdogan was, however, not welcomed with open arms by everyone. Hundreds of Armenian demonstrators reportedly gathered in downtown Beirut on Thursday to protest his visit and some angry protesters even started to rip down billboards of the Turkish leader that had been mounted in the city center.

Armenia wants Turkey to recognize the mass killings of Armenians during World War I as a genocide but consecutive Turkish governments have so far refused to do so. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in 1915 when they were expelled from the Anatolia district by the Ottoman Empire.

Erdogan had said in previous remarks that he was also planning to visit the Turkish contingent of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in the southern parts of the country. Turkey became the first Muslim country to contribute peacekeeping troops to UNIFIL after it was given a boost in 2006 following Israel's 34-day-long war with Hezbollah in the summer of that year. Some viewed the decision controversial at the time, considering Lebanon's history under Ottoman rule, but the total number of Turkish forces serving in UNIFIL was reportedly around 1,000 last year and Erdogan saluted their efforts.

 "We think this force is helping Lebanon," he said in a news conference in Beirut. "I will meet the Turkish soldiers and this is Turkey's contribution."

 -- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photos, from top: Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, right, chats with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the Annual Arab Banking conference in Beirut on Thursday. (Credit: Reuters); Lebanese men of Armenian descent tear up a poster showing the Turkish leader. (Credit: Associated Press)