(photo credit: AP)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's toxic comments Sunday that Israel's actions in the Gaza Strip would lead to punishment from Allah and Israel's "self-destruction" drew a protest from the Foreign Ministry, which told Turkey's ambassador to Israel that these words were "unacceptable" among friendly nations.
Erdogan, speaking at a municipal election campaign rally in Anatolia, said Israel was "perpetrating inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction. Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents."
While the Foreign Ministry registered a protest with the Turkish ambassador, it did not issue a formal statement about the remarks - not wanting, according to diplomatic officials, to exacerbate the already tense situation with the Turks.
While Erdogan, who returned Sunday from an unsuccessful tour to the region with the hopes of mediating a cease-fire, has been extremely critical of Operation Cast Lead, Sunday's comments were by far the most caustic. Diplomatic officials said that when Operation Cast Lead was over, it would be necessary to evaluate the damage to the relationship that these comments have caused.
At the end of the day, they added, what would dictate whether the strategic relationship would remain strong would be the realpolitik interests of both sides, and not overheated rhetoric.
Ironically, the day after Erdogan's comments, Turkey offered to send forces to the region if an international monitoring force was eventually established to monitor a cease-fire.
In Ankara, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said his country favored a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas ensured by international monitors, adding that Turkey was willing to contribute to such a mission.
Israel, however, has been cool to the idea of international monitors in Gaza, saying that when Hamas fires rockets on Israel, it is not necessary to have monitors record that the rockets were fired - everybody will know about it.
Babacan's statement came during a news conference with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who arrived in Turkey to discuss ways to establish a cease-fire. Muallem said Turkey and Syria were working toward uniting their efforts to get a cease-fire and get border crossings open.
One diplomatic official said that Erdogan's reference to Allah and punishment in his harsh comment on Israel reflected the prime minister's very strong Islamic roots. The official added, however, that Erdogan's words needed to be seen through the prism of a Turkish public opinion that has lined up squarely against the IDF operation - thousands of people protested the operation in Istanbul on Sunday - and upcoming municipal elections throughout Turkey in March.
Erdogan's AKP party is trying to capture 45% of the vote, two percent less then it did in the 2007 national elections, to send a signal that, despite severe economic problems, the party still retains its strength. The type of comment Erdogan made Sunday, diplomatic officials said, plays well with Erdogan's core Islamic constituency.
The Turkish prime minister is viewed in Jerusalem as "very emotional," and prone to "undiplomatic comments," especially when it comes the Palestinians.
The officials also speculated that Erdogan was frustrated at Israel because his attempts to mediate an end to the conflict did not bear any fruit. He is also believed to have been insulted that Israel launched the Gaza campaign just a couple days after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Ankara, something Erdogan said was a sign of "disrespect" to Turkey.
The Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv had no comment on the matter.
AP contributed to this report.