Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the international statesman of the moment. Greeted as a rock star in Egypt and other countries transformed by the Arab Spring, the Turkish Premier looms like a colossus over the Middle East. In recent weeks, he has been one of the most vocal world leaders to back the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations. Popular at home, Erdogan has held his position since 2003, and was recently re-elected to a new term. All the while, both Turkey’s economy and geopolitical footprint have been growing noticeably. Erdogan sat down with TIME’s Jim Frederick, Bobby Ghosh, Tony Karon, Matt McAllester and Ishaan Tharoor on the sidelines of U.N. meetings in New York City. The following are excerpts from the conversation, touching upon Turkey’s deteriorating relationship with Israel, the failures of the Middle East peace process, Erdogan’s support for the Arab Spring and frustrations with the U.N., and whether anybody in Ankara still cares about joining the E.U.
TIME: You’ve been outspoken in support of the Palestinian cause and statehood. There are people who say all the drama at the U.N. has not helped the peace process. How do you think it has gone?
Erdogan: First and foremost, what is required is for the U.N. Security Council to say yes to the legitimate demands of the people in Palestine. If anything else should be discussed at this moment, it should be between two states. And there’s another fact we need to consider, primarily the borders of 1967. Israel first seems to have accepted going back to the borders of 1967, but somehow seemed to have got distanced from this ideal. They need to get closer back to it. Palestine is in a form of a maze right now.
Through TIME, I’d like to make a call out to humanity: [The Palestinians] are there to exist. They are not there to be condemned to struggle in an open-air penitentiary. Israel’s cruelty in that regard cannot be continued any longer. And, of course, the legitimate demands for Palestine to be a recognized state should be catered to and considered both in the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly. Those who approach these demands negatively will never be able to settle their accounts with history.
Four, five years ago, it seemed that relations between Turkey and Israel were very close and could change the dynamic of the whole region. Now ties appear to be irrevocably broken.
Our mutual relations with Israel would have been reinforced even further only if Israel hadn’t victimized the positive relations of two countries with [its 2010 raid] on the Mavi Marmara, which was navigating in international waters. The flotillas in question were bearing nothing but humanitarian aid, including toys, food and other sorts of materials. They were holding over 450 citizens from 32 countries. One of the casualties is an American citizen of Turkish descent. And right now the Israeli Prime Minister still alleges that the flotillas were actually loaded with weapons. Had they possessed the weapons that were alleged, why didn’t they fire back? There are reports issued by both the U.N. Security Council and U.N. agencies in Geneva about this incident, and you never see the slightest trace that the flotillas were carrying guns. The Israeli government is not being honest at all. Right now, as long as they refuse to apologize for the nine people of Turkish descent who lost their lives on the flotilla, so long as they refuse to pay compensation to the families, and of course as long as the embargo on Gaza has not been lifted, the relations between the two countries will never become normalized.