The incident provided a fresh example of the Obama administration’s reluctance to tackle Turkey’s Islamist government in public over its support for Hamas, even as it partners with Ankara in its centerpiece counter-terror initiative (which excludes Israel).
During a joint press appearance in Istanbul with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, Kerry was asked by a Turkish journalist about Turkey playing a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“I was wondering if there’s any specific proposal for what Turkey’s contribution could be, especially regarding maybe bringing Hamas in line with international expectations,” the reporter asked. (Those expectations, as laid down by the so-called Mideast Quartet, include renunciation of terrorism.)
The same questioner also asked Kerry whether Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip soon was being seen “as a looming crisis.”
In his response, Kerry was silent on Erdogan’s upcoming visit to Gaza, and addressed the broader Hamas issue only indirectly, in the context of the Palestinian economy.
“Now, obviously, it’s more complicated to deal with Gaza than the West Bank for all the obvious reasons, but Turkey can be very helpful, perhaps, in transitioning that component of the process, as well as in helping to build on our efforts to transform the economics of the West Bank itself,” he said.
Minutes earlier, Kerry had spoken about the terrorism Turkey has faced at the hands of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose violent 29-year campaign for establish Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey has cost the lives of almost 40,000 people, three-quarters of them PKK members. A Turkey-PKK peace initiative is currently underway.
Kerry also spoke passionately about Taliban terrorism in Afghanistan, delivering a tribute to foreign service officer Anne Smedinghoff, one of four Americans killed by a suicide bomber while delivering books to a school in the south of the country.
He described those responsible for the bombing – which the Taliban styled a “successful martyrdom attack” – as nihilistic and “cowardly terrorists determined to bring darkness and death to total strangers.”
Davutoglu, too, called the attack “horrific” and said Turkey “shall always remain against terror, and we will always force the strongest ever possible solidarity in fighting against terrorism.”
But the Turkish government’s views on Palestinian terror are much more ambivalent, and Erdogan has on numerous occasions rejected the notion that Hamas is a terrorist group.
Hamas, which like the PKK is designated a “foreign terrorist organization” by the U.S. government, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, rocket assaults and other attacks since the interim Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993.
Furthermore, at least 15 Americans were killed between 1993 and 2002 in attacks for which Hamas claimed responsibility. Still others were killed in attacks which Hamas was suspected to have carried out, but did not claim responsibility.
The Mideast Quartet, comprising the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the U.N., has established three criteria for Hamas to meet before they deal with it: recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and adhere to all previously signed Israel-Palestinian agreements.
Erdogan has been meeting with Hamas leaders since at least 2005, and recently announced he intends to visit Gaza, which Hamas has ruled since seizing control in 2007 after routing P.A. forces loyal to the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Kerry told reporters in Istanbul that “Turkey can be a key – an important contributor to the process of peace [between Israel and the Palestinians] in so many ways.”
“[A] country as strong and as vibrant, as energized and as transformative as Turkey can have a profound impact by being a partner in this process,” he said.
From Istanbul, Kerry traveled later Sunday to Israel, going directly to Ramallah in the P.A.-administered West Bank for talks with Abbas.