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(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON – The White House denied on Monday that it had issued an ultimatum to Turkey to change its stance toward Israel and Iran to avoid jeopardizing US arms sales.
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But members of Congress indicated that displeasure with Turkey could affect their willingness to approve deals sought by Ankara.
In addition to congressional displeasure over Turkey’s vote against Iran sanctions at the UN in June, and against its outspoken condemnation of Israel following the IDF’s killing of nine Turks aboard a flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade, Congress is showing signs of wariness over foreign arms deals following the recent death of an Israeli soldier at the hands of the Lebanese military, which receives American aid.
“Turkey has to know that there’s a price to pay, with Iran and with Israel, [with] threatening to break relations and going on and on about the flotilla,” Rep. Eliot Engel (DNew York), one of Congress’s most outspoken critics of Turkey, told The Jerusalem Pos
t. “They cannot have it both ways. They cannot be unhelpful when it affects our most important ally in the region, Israel, and when it affects us, the United States. It can’t act negatively in that regard and then think it’s business as usual for their needs.”The Financial Times
reported on Sunday that US President Barack Obama warned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan directly that arms sales sought by Ankara would be difficult for the administration to move through Congress given its feelings about Turkey’s stance on Israel and Iran.
The White House confirmed that a phone call between the two leaders 10 days ago did touch on Iran and the flotilla as well as the scheduled US withdrawal from Iraq.
“We have had discussions with Turkey about Iran as well as regarding the flotilla incident, but the notion that some sort of ultimatum has been issued is inaccurate,” US National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said.
Turkey seeking US drones to bolster operations against Kurds
With the anticipated drawdown of US combat forces from Iraq, Turkey is understood to be planning more aggressive action against the Kurdish PKK bases in Iraq’s north, near the Turkish border, and is seeking US drones to bolster its operations.
Engel said such action would be “totally hypocritical” given Ankara’s criticism of Israel’s actions against the flotilla – which were taken to stop weapons from reaching the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip – and warned that many of his colleagues in Congress felt similarly.
“They think they can just cross borders to go after people they deem terrorists, but Israel’s not entitled to protect its own people,” he said of Turkey’s policy toward the separatist PKK. “There’s a lot of unhappiness in Congress over the way Turkey has acted in this whole flotilla incident.”
A letter strongly supporting Israel after the flotilla deaths garnered 338 signatories in the 435-member House of Representatives.
“If Congress has its say, it would do whatever it can to keep weapons from going to Turkey,” said one Democratic Congressional staffer, pointing to the “overwhelming” criticism of Ankara following May 31’s flotilla confrontation.
He also cited August 3’s incident on the Lebanese border. Following the violence, two key members of Congress have held up aid to the Lebanese military.
“The most telling example is what happened with Lebanon,” the staffer said. “Turkey supported a flotilla that ended up probably being much worse [for Israel] than what happened to Israel along the border.”
A Capitol Hill aide also pointed to the situation in Lebanon as a key factor shaping the congressional approach to Middle East arms sales.
“There’s a magnifying glass on arms sales in that region, after what happened in Lebanon,” he said. “Turkey will get the same scrutiny.”
While he noted that Turkey hadn’t used arms against Israel, he still expected congressional opposition to arms sales, because “it sends a message that Turkey’s actions are not going unheeded.”