The United States is mounting a diplomatic effort to prevent further deterioration in relations between U.S. allies Turkey and Israel. Turkey warns it would use force in the future to protect aid ships from Turkey trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
The Obama administration has been seeking for some time ease Israeli-Turkish tensions but it is stepping up the effort, amid Turkish comments suggesting the political conflict could escalate into a military clash.
Relations between Turkey and Israel, once strategic allies, have gone downhill since May of last year when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship trying to deliver relief supplies to Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Nine people, eight Turks and a Turkish-born U.S. citizen, were killed in the operation.
Israel has expressed regret over the casualties but has refused Turkish demands for a formal apology.
Thursday in Ankara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish warships would escort future aid boats leaving Turkey for Gaza, raising at least the potential of a military face-off with Israel.
An Israeli spokesman described the Turkish comments as grave and serious but said Israel will not engage in saber-rattling and hopes the episode will pass.
At a press briefing Friday, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States is urging both sides to “cool it,” and refrain from talk or action that could add to tensions.
“We support the right of free navigation obviously. But we are concerned about any action that could be perceived as provocative, that could escalate tensions. We want to see these two strong allies of the United States get along with each other, and work together in support of regional peace and security,” Nuland said.
A United Nations report issued last week said Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, preventing arms smuggling to the radical Palestinian faction Hamas, is legal but that Israel used excessive force to stop the aid flotilla.
Turkey rejected the U.N. finding on the blockade and has downgraded relations with Israel, suspending all military cooperation.
It has also challenged Israel’s plans to exploit gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, rejecting an agreement between Israel and Cyprus that divides waters between them and envisages gas exports to Europe through a Cypriot port.
State Department Spokeswoman Nuland said Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Philip Gordon met Turkish Ambassador to Washington Namik Tan Friday to discuss the dispute, and that U.S. envoys David Hale and Dennis Ross raised it with Israeli leaders earlier this week.
She said the United States believes that developing Mediterranean gas resources is a positive in terms of diversifying regional supplies.
However she said Cypriot gas revenue should be “fully shared” between the island’s Greek and Turkish communities as part of a long-sought political settlement creating a bi-communal federated state.