Obama Administration Again Caught Between Its Allies Israel and Turkey

Patrick Goodenough | November 20, 2012 | 4:45am EST
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President Barack Obama with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 Summit in Cannes on Nov. 3, 2011. (Photo: AP)

(CNSNews.com) – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s characteristically pugnacious condemnation of Israel over the latest conflict in Gaza has – not for the first time – placed the Obama administration in the awkward position of seeing two of its close Mideast allies at loggerheads.

On Monday Erdogan, an Islamist who has embraced Hamas as a “resistance group fighting to defend their land” and met with its leader in Cairo as recently as Sunday, was quoted as calling Israel “a terrorist state” responsible for “the massacre of children in Gaza.”

Asked about those comments during a press briefing later in the day, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to answer directly.

“We are focused on an affirmative narrative of de-escalation on both sides,” she said. “I am not going to get into ‘He said x and she said y.’ I’m just not going to do it here.” Nuland added that the administration has “been very clear that Israel has a right of self-defense.”

“And yet you won’t stick up for your ally Israel when the Turks, another one of your allies, say that they’re engaged in terrorism in Gaza?” asked Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee.

Nuland: “We have been extremely clear about our concern for Israel’s security, about the fact that Israel has a right to self-defense, but I am not going to go further than that today.”

Lee: “Why can’t you say that you don’t agree with the Turks?”

Nuland: “Because I’m not going to get into a public spitting match with allies on either side. We’re just not going to do that, okay?”

Lee continued to press Nuland on the issue, arguing that not saying whether the U.S. agrees or disagrees with the Turkish comments was making the situation worse.

Nuland eventually said, “We, of course, agree that rhetorical attacks against Israel are not helpful at this moment.”

Briefing reporters on Air Force One in Southeast Asia, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said that the administration’s message to countries with “influence over Hamas,” including Turkey, Egypt and Qatar, was that “those nations need to use that influence to de-escalate the conflict.”

Israel and NATO member Turkey were themselves close allies until several years ago, enjoying close military-to-military cooperation and high-level state visits as recently as 2007. But Erdogan in 2006 also began making overtures to Hamas, holding talks with its leaders and disputing the Israeli and U.S. view of the group as a terrorist organization.

A Turkey-Israel rift widened after the Israeli military offensive against Hamas over the winter of 2008-9, and in February 2009 Erdogan stormed off a stage in Davos, Switzerland after a heated exchange with Israel’s ceremonial president, Shimon Peres.

Later that same year Turkey asked Israel to withdraw from a scheduled NATO air force exercise that it was preparing to host. After the U.S. and Italy pulled out of the exercise in protest, Ankara canceled it altogether.

The divide widely dramatically after Israeli commandos in May 2010 raided a Turkish ship trying to break a security blockade around Gaza. Violent clashes between the commandos and pro-Hamas activists left nine activists dead; Turkey withdrew its ambassador and continues to demand apologies and compensation. As recently as last spring it was still blocking Israel’s participation in NATO events.

In parallel to the deterioration of bilateral ties, Israel watched with dismay as Erdogan strengthened Turkey’s ties with Iran and Syria (the relationship with the Assad regime subsequently soured over the civil war).

The U.S, too, was frustrated when Turkey in June 2010 refused to support a key U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear activities.

Still Erdogan, whose ruling party won a third term in mid-2011, has a warm relationship with Obama, who in an interview early this year listed the Turk among five world leaders with whom he shared “friendships and the bonds of trust.”

Last year the administration launched a new global counterterrorism forum and invited Turkey to co-chair the initiative, which involves 27 other countries – but not Israel.

At the same event Monday at which Erdogan described Israel as a “terrorist state” he also implicitly criticized the U.S. for backing Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

“Where are the dominant powers?,” he asked. “Where are the Western powers? None of them say ‘what are you doing?’ It’s because that is Israel.”

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