Turkey, Trying to Isolate Israel, Gets Cordial Treatment From Obama Administration

September 20, 2011 - 3:43 AM

Obama-Erdogan

President Obama talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a G20 summit in Seoul, South Korea on Nov. 12, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

(CNSNews.com) – As Turkey’s leaders intensify efforts to isolate Israel internationally, the cordial treatment they are receiving from the Obama administration this week will add to concerns some Americans have about the strength of its support for Israel.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as “excellent” her talks in New York City on Monday with her Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu. President Obama is scheduled to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan there on Tuesday. All are in the city for this week’s U.N. General Assembly sessions.

The Clinton-Davutoglu meeting came a day after the Turkish foreign minister announced that his government had blocked an Israeli attempt to open a liaison office at NATO headquarters in Brussels – the latest in a string of moves aimed at punishing Israel over a deadly commando raid on a Turkish ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists to the Gaza Strip in May 2010.

Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning government earlier this month angrily rejected a U.N. report on the incident that called the Israeli raid “excessive and unreasonable” but also described the attempt to breach Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory as “reckless” and concluded that the blockade was a “legitimate security measure.”

While Israeli leaders have expressed a desire to heal the rift between the one-time allies, Turkey imposed sanctions on Jerusalem and declared its intention to use all international forums to make its views on Israel known.

Erdogan used a high-profile tour of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya last week to repeatedly condemn Israel and throw his weight behind the Palestinian U.N. recognition bid. And Turkish media reported that a government minister, Egemen Bagis, staged a symbolic walkout of an international conference in Ukraine on Friday when Israeli President Shimon Peres was about to deliver a speech.

In a fresh development, Davutoglu told CNN’s Turkish channel on Sunday that Turkey had threatened to veto an Israeli application this month to open an office at NATO headquarters.

“We said we would veto this attempt and the issue was not even put on the agenda,” Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper quoted him as telling the news channel. It said Davutoglu also denied that Israel would benefit in any way from a recent decision to house a NATO missile defense radar on Turkish soil.

Early this month, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked about Turkey’s claim that it made non-intelligence sharing cooperation with Israel a condition of its decision to accommodate the radar.

“This is a NATO system, and it is designed to protect NATO,” she replied. Israel is not a member of NATO.

The 28-member transatlantic alliance takes decisions by consensus, and the blocking of an Israeli office in Brussels is not the first time in recent months Turkey has wielded its clout on issues of importance to Washington.

Last November it insisted that a key NATO document on missile defense not name Iran as a potential missile threat, and Erdogan also opposed NATO intervention in Libya last spring, before shifting stance as the crisis deepened.

In the CNN Turk interview, Davutoglu said it was too late for U.S. mediation between Turkey and Israel, and that Turkey would not relent on its insistence for an Israeli apology over the flotilla incident.

‘Turkey must choose where it belongs’

Following Monday’s almost hour-long Clinton-Davutoglu meeting, a senior State Department official said on condition of anonymity that the secretary had “encouraged Turkey to keep the door open” on improving the strained relationship with Israel.

But asked whether Clinton had offered any specific ideas in that regard, the official said, “This is something they have to sort out between the two.”

The official rejected suggestions that Washington should make it clear to Turkey that the U.S. would side with Israel in the event of a confrontation.

“Both of these countries are longstanding and close friends and partners of the United States. And it’s not a question of taking sides; it’s a question of believing that we would benefit, and they would benefit, if they can repair the unfortunate breach in their relationship.”

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Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds a press conference in Cairo on Sept. 13. During a tour to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya aimed at broadening Turkey’s influence in the Middle East, he repeatedly condemned Israel. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Ahead of his departure for New York, Erdogan told reporters that he plans to press Obama to drop his opposition to the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition. He pointed to the president’s address to the General Assembly year ago and said he would ask for an explanation about the apparent shift in position since then.

(In that Sept. 2010 speech, Obama said that if Middle East negotiators “reach for what’s best within ourselves,” then “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

Palestinian leaders say the words amount to a U.S. pledge and recently cited them in broadcast ads promoting the recognition bid.)

Asked what Obama should tell Erdogan at their meeting Tuesday, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin said the president should make it clear “that all Middle Eastern leaders who have sought to leverage anti-Western, anti-Israel, anti-Christian, or anti-Semitic rhetoric for short-term populist gain have ended up destroying their countries.”

“He should also let Turkey know that Turkey can no longer pursue the rhetoric of Western liberalism with the policies of autocracy, and that it is now time for Turkey to choose firmly where it belongs,” Rubin added.

On Thursday, Clinton and Davutoglu will launch a new global counterterrorism forum (GCTF), part of what the Obama administration is calling its “smart power approach to counterterrorism.”

The U.S. and Turkey will co-chair the GCTF, which also involves 27 other countries and the European Union. Israel is not among them.

As CNSNews.com reported last week, one-third of the founding members – including Turkey itself – are members of the Islamic bloc which differs with the West over whether attacks by those under “occupation” constitute terrorism. Erdogan also rejects the U.S. and Israeli view that Hamas is a terrorist organization.

During Monday’s background briefing, the State Department official was asked about the recent U.S. outreach to the Turks.

“Is there a sense that as the tensions grow between Turkey and Israel you’re having to work harder and harder to stay on good terms with the Turks, to keep them involved in things like the counterterror forum, the radar station – that it requires a lot of sort of work on those ties in keeping them involved in very tangible ways in their relationship with the United States?” a reporter asked.

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” the official replied. “We’re doing all of those things out of our interests, and we’ll continue to do them. Obviously, tensions between Turkey and Israel don’t help in a general sense, but I wouldn’t link it in that specific way.”