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Gaza Crisis Strains US-Turkey Relations

  • Dorian Jones

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of Muslim religious leaders from Europe and Asia, in Istanbul, Turkey, Nov. 19. 2012.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of Muslim religious leaders from Europe and Asia, in Istanbul, Turkey, Nov. 19. 2012.

The deepening crisis over Gaza is straining Turkish-U.S. relations, with Ankara calling on Washington to rein in Israel.

While addressing a conference in Istanbul Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a strong attack against Israel for its ongoing military operation in Gaza.

He says those who associate Islam with terrorism close their eyes in the face of mass killing of Muslims, and turn their heads from the massacre of children in Gaza. The prime minister went on to say "For this reason, I say that Israel is a terrorist state, and its acts are terrorist acts."

Erdogan made similar statements during a visit to Cairo last week.

U.S. President Barack Obama has strongly defended Israel in connection with its operations against Gaza, citing its right to self-defense.

Some political observers in Turkey say the opposing views of the two leaders could hurt their relationship.

But Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based international relations research institute Edam, says it is important to look beyond the rhetoric of the prime minister.

"At the rhetorical level, the Turkish prime minister has used this opportunity to reiterate his criticism of Israel, but at the same time Turkey has been one of the countries, along with Egypt and Qatar, to join the Hamas leadership to talk about the future of the region and how this crisis can be overcome," said Ulgen.

Analysts say a strong relationship has developed between the U.S. president and the Turkish prime minister, with the leaders in regular contact - in particular about the conflict in Syria. Both support the opposition over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But Erdogan, along with strongly criticizing Israel, has also made thinly veiled attacks against Washington and the European Union for what he says are their failure to rein in the Israelis.

Diplomatic correspondent Semih Idiz of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet says that such close ties between the U.S. and Turkish leaders had led to hopes that Washington would take a more neutral stance towards Israel in connection with Gaza.

"A very deep disappointment, there is no doubt about that. They would have expected some balanced remarks to come out from Obama. This only bolsters this notion when it comes to the Middle East - America's foreign policy is being drawn in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, rather than in Washington," said Idiz. "But on the other hand, Turkey and America are much involved in the Syria debacle at the moment, so they will not want to allow the situation with Israel to go beyond a certain limit. So this is very contingent on what Israel does in Gaza."

For now, both sides appear to be accommodating the differing views on the Gaza conflict. But a deepening of the crisis or even a prolonged continuation of it will threaten to hurt future relations between Turkey and the United States, according to international relations analyst Ulgen.

"If Ankara continues with its rhetoric, then that might be a problem for the U.S.-Turkish relationship because obviously the U.S. administration would also come under immense pressure to criticizing the Turkish position," he said. "However, any potential risk of a crisis between Turkey and the U.S. on Gaza can be mitigated if Ankara is able to push Hamas in the direction of conciliation and in the direction of stopping the aggression. And that is what Turkish diplomacy is striving for at the moment."

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is due to visit Gaza as part of an Arab League initiative. Ankara is pushing for an immediate truce. Davutoglu is predicted to echo Erdogan's tough rhetoric against Israel. But behind the scenes he is expected to work hard to find a solution to the deepening crisis.
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