US congressmen: Turkey’s new stance on Israel welcome

Jewish leaders say words need to be backed up with action, more changes needed.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
August 31, 2010 02:29
3 minute read.
TURKISH PRIME MINISTER Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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WASHINGTON – Following the visit of a Turkish delegation to Washington, members of the US Congress and Jewish community are noting a change in Turkey’s rhetoric, but stress that words have to be backed up with actions.

After Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu held meetings with key officials at the White House, State Department and Treasury as well as with representatives of US Jewish organizations last week, Turkish officials were quoted in the Turkish press making positive statements about Israel and the relationship between the two countries.

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In their meetings, diplomatic sources described sharp differences in Ankara and Jerusalem over Israel’s deadly raid on a Turkish-supported flotilla trying to break the Gaza blockade as an incident between “two friends,” according to the Anatolia news agency.

A similar message was conveyed at Tuesday’s meeting with Jewish leaders, according to the Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review, which reported that Turkey conveyed the message that Israel was “a friend” and that the visit ended with “smiles and good wishes.”

Until now, positive gestures between Turkey and Israel have been few and far between since the raid, which left nine Turkish activists dead. Amid harsh criticism, calls for an apology and a UN investigation, Ankara recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv.

The reverberations of the dispute, which followed other heated exchanges over Gaza and other regional policies between the two onceclose allies, have been felt in Washington. The Obama administration has called for a calming of tensions, while members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have slammed the Turkish government. The confirmation of the next US ambassador to Turkey is being held up in the Senate, while members of the House of Representatives have threatened to block arms sales to Ankara.



“Their stated desire to be friends with Israel has to be backed up with something.

So far all I’ve seen is an active PR machine,” said one Democratic congressional aide who works on Turkey, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Actions are going to speak louder than words.”

While he was “glad to hear” the statements of friendship with Israel, he added, “It’s actually a sad state of affairs that they have to say it. It’s not something they ever had to say before.”

Jewish officials who met with Sinirlioglu also said they are looking for actions to make the shift in rhetoric meaningful.

“I would like to see demonstrations that they take the relationship with Israel seriously, [such as by] sending their ambassador back to Israel, beyond the more positive words expressed to Jewish organizations,” said one participant, speaking anonymously about the off-the-record meeting. “We’ll all be looking for that.”

Significant differences on policy clearly remain, however, and not just regarding the flotilla incident. Congress is worried about a general shift by Turkey away from the West, epitomized by its relations with Iran. Turkey infuriated the US by voting against a fourth set of UN sanctions on Iran in June despite its continued enrichment of uranium in contravention of international demands.

Treasury officials visited Ankara earlier this month “to ask Turkey not to trade with Iran” and to coordinate on the sanctions imposed against Iran, according to sources quoted in Hürriyet. But the newspaper reported that Turkey doesn’t believe itself bound by the further, much more comprehensive sanctions, passed by Congress and other countries.

Still, Washington sources said it was a positive sign that Turkey saw the need to act to improve its image in the US.

One Jewish official said he was glad to see that the officials reached out to the community last week and recognized the importance of indicating they were listening to American Jewry’s perspective.

“They’re concerned that they’ve crossed a certain line and need to find a way to walk back,” he said. “We certainly have their attention.”

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