Secretary of State John Kerry is no stranger to prickly diplomatic situations – he smoothed ruffled feathers in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years as President Obama’s troubleshooting envoy to those two problematic partners.
But his skills got a particularly tricky testing in Turkey Friday, where Secretary Kerry arrived for talks two days after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Zionism a “crime against humanity” as grave as anti-Semitism or Islamophopia.
Instead, Kerry found himself admonishing the Turkish leader for what he said the US considered an “objectionable” comment. Indeed, the White House on Friday issued a statement rejecting Mr. Erdogan’s equation of Zionism with other crimes against humanity as “offensive and wrong.”
Speaking Wednesday at a United Nations conference in Vienna meant to encourage dialogue between the West and Islam, Erdogan said, “It is necessary that we must consider – just like Zionism, or anti-Semitism, or fascism – Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the comments “hurtful” and “divisive.”
Turkey and Israel were once good friends, even holding joint military exercises. US leaders cited Turkey as an example of a Muslim country building a mutually advantageous relationship with the Jewish state. But that ended in 2010, when Israel responded to a flotilla of protesters out to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza by opening fire, killing nine Turks.
Israel insisted it was acting in self-defense and has never apologized for the deadly attack, infuriating Erdogan. He has issued occasional rhetorical broadsides against Israel ever since. Last November he accused Israel of “state terrorism” and “ethnic-cleansing” in its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
State Department officials traveling with Kerry said the comment was doubly unfortunate because it sent a tense ripple through a visit that otherwise was focused on topics where the US and Turkey have been working closely together: Syria, Iran, Egypt, counterterrorism.
“We have regretted for some time that Turkey and Israel, which are both strong friends and partners of the United States and once cooperated extensively with each other in terms of trade and tourism and even military and strategic cooperation – that that cooperation has broken down,” one senior State Department official said on condition of not being cited by name. “We’ll continue to urge Turkey and continue to urge both countries to do what they can and normalize that important relationship.”
At a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu before meeting Erdogan, Kerry said he raised the comment “very directly” with his counterpart, stressing the “urgent need to promote a spirit of tolerance, and that includes all of the public statements made by all leaders.”
Mr. Davutoglu made no mention of Erdogan’s remarks, preferring instead to upbraid Israel over its actions. “If Israel wants to hear positive statements from Turkey, it needs to review its attitude,” he said. “It needs to review its attitude toward us, and it needs to review its attitude toward the people in the region and especially the West Bank settlements issue.”
While hardly music to Kerry’s ears, those words allowed the top US diplomat the opportunity to sound – diplomatic. Asked to respond to his counterpart’s uncompromising remark, Kerry said, “It underscores the importance of our efforts to try to find a way forward to make peace in this region and to resolve the kind of differences that excite the passions that the foreign minister has just articulated and the difference of opinions about words and about their impact.”
Kerry said he was still hopeful that Turkey and Israel could find a way to restore their previously cooperative relations, something he said would be an asset to the effort to forge Middle East peace.