US gov't, Jews try to shore up Turkey-Israel ties

Clinton meets with Turkish FM to listen to concerns.

June 3, 2010 05:14
4 minute read.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton scratches head 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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WASHINGTON – As the US tries to calm the diplomatic waters surrounding the deadly Gaza flotilla confrontation, it faces one of its greatest challenges in balancing relations and easing tensions between two allies, Israel and Turkey.

US President Barack Obama spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Tuesday afternoon, stressing his “deep condolences” for the loss of Turkish life during the incident and backing calls for a credible investigation, according to a White House statement.

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But he did not adopt the Turkish position condemning Israel for the incident or urge an independent investigation, which Jerusalem opposes, in a sign of the careful calibration of the administration’s response.

Obama’s call to Erdogan followed three phone conversations with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu the day before, in which he expressed his understanding for Netanyahu’s decision to cancel his planned visit with Obama Tuesday and noted the importance of learning all the facts of what happened before making judgments.

“Turkey and Israel are both good friends of the United States, and we are working with both to deal with the aftermath of this tragic incident,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters Tuesday.

Clinton met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu earlier in the day, listening to his concerns about Israel’s role in a raid on a Turkish-flagged ship trying to break the Gaza blockade. At least four Turkish citizens died during the confrontation.

A State Department spokesman said that Clinton assured Davutoglu that the US would pass on to Israel Turkey’s desire to have the bodies of those killed returned, and for the scores of Turkish nationals being detained in Israeli prisons released.

Erosion of ties between Turkey and US Jewish groups

While Clinton also conveyed her condolences over the flotilla deaths, she did not meet the demands Davutoglu laid out ahead of their meeting.

“I have to be frank: I am not very happy with this statement from Washington yesterday,” Davutoglu said before his more than two-hour meeting with Clinton. “We expect a clear condemnation.”

He also complained that America had watered down a UN Security Council resolution so that it didn’t condemn Israel.

Also Tuesday, Erdogan, during a session of parliament, called the raid a “bloody massacre” and declared that “nothing will be the same again” in the Turkey-Israel relationship.

“The Americans are involved and they’re trying to keep things as stable as possible and prevent deterioration,” said an American Jewish leader who tracks Turkey and US Middle East policy on the Israel-Turkey relationship and who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re trying to keep things contained.”

While in the past American Jewish organizations were seen as a crucial bridge to Turkey, maintaining close ties with the embassy and often collaborating on Washington issues, those ties have been eroding in recent months. The latest incident is only the most dramatic and raw wound in a steady deterioration in relations.

“There’s a growing frustration and disappointment with how Turkey has conducted its relations with Israel, which seems to continue to aggressively push Israel and not try to work with it,” the Jewish leader said, noting his organization had not been in touch with Turkish officials.

However, Jason Isaacson, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office, said that his organization had been reaching out to the Turks.

“We have established contacts with many people in the Turkish establishment and we are communicating a message of great concern and support for the fundamentals of the relationship,” he said. “We hope those messages are being conveyed.”

As a sign of the American stabilization effort, the anonymous Jewish leader pointed to US efforts to keep the Security Council resolution for faulting Israel.

Israel's position in American foreign policy

Amidst harsh rhetoric from Turkey, he said the Obama administration was trying hard to calm the tone and “be supportive of Israel even if it’s not what Israel wants.”

He acknowledged, though, that some see this as a sign of US and Israeli interests not aligning and Israel being a strategic liability for America.

Even Mossad chief Meir Dagan told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that strategic ties between Jerusalem and Washington have been slowly changing since the conclusion of the Cold War.

“Bit by bit, Israel is becoming less of a strategic asset for America,” Dagan said in his meeting with committee.

Still, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs strongly rejected any fraying of ties.

Asked if Israel had become a political burden to the US, he responded: “No. Let me be clear here. The United States and Israel – as I have said on countless occasions, we have a trusted relationship. They are an important ally and we are greatly supportive of their security. That’s not going to change.”

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