- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2010

The deadly May 31 flotilla clash off Gaza has prompted some in Congress to condemn Turkey, not Israel, and to note with concern Ankara’s steady shift in favor of U.S. adversaries Iran and Hamas.

While the world press reported international criticism of Israel, away from the headlines was a bipartisan group of Washington lawmakers criticizing Turkey for home-porting the flotilla that Israel says carried terrorist-linked activists. The ships were organized by the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), whose leaders acknowledge their aim was to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

For years, Turkey has held a special place on Capitol Hill as a NATO ally and Muslim country maintaining close economic and military ties to the Jewish state. Turkey has acted as a go-between in Israel-Arab dialogue. But that relationship started to sour several years ago, and now some in Congress are taking a second, more critical look at Turkey.

“I urge you to condemn Turkey’s support of IHH which has been known to maintain ties to terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Al Qaeda,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., New Jersey Democrat, wrote in a letter to President Obama. “I also ask that you condemn Turkey’s reaction to the incident involving the flotilla. Rather than engaging in an open dialogue, Turkey has chosen to recall their ambassador from Israel and disrupt diplomatic relations. … Turkey has chosen to ignore the facts and force its own view of events through threat. We can not allow these same old tactics to prevent us from taking the right position.”

Since taking power in 2002, Ankara’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has developed closer ties to Iran and Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that controls Gaza.

One of the harshest attacks came from the Republican House leadership.

“The complicity of Turkey in launching a flotilla to challenge the blockade in Gaza, the ensuing violence that occurred, the grievous loss of life is deeply troubling to those of us who have supported the U.S. Turkish alliance in the past,” Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who heads the House Republican Conference, said on the House floor.

“Hamas used the Gaza Strip to launch vicious and brutal attacks, thousands of rockets on civilians,” he said. “It cost lives in Gaza, it cost lives in Israel. Turkey needs to count the cost. Turkey needs to decide whether its present course is in its long-term interest.”

Rep. John Sarbanes, Maryland Democrat, said the U.N. inquiry should not look just at Israeli actions when commandos boarded the Turkish cruise ship Mavi Marmara, were attacked and responded by killing nine on board.

Mr. Sarbanes attacked Turkey’s “readiness to condone this kind of brinksmanship. Further inquiry will reveal to what extent activists on the Mavi Marmara were connected to extremist organizations that are implementing a broad strategy of confrontation with Israel.”

Asked about congressional criticism of Turkey, Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said, “As we have said, we support an Israeli-led investigation into the flotilla incident that is prompt, credible, impartial and transparent.”

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said there is “growing concern” about Turkey in Congress. He blamed, in part, Mr. Obama’s foreign policy of reaching out to Iran and criticizing Israel, while one of his top advisers, John Brennan, talks of “moderate elements” inside Iran-supported Lebanese Hezbollah, also a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

“Obama over the last 18 months has sent a clear signal to people in the Middle East that it’s OK to reach out to these organizations, Hamas, Hezbollah,” Mr. Hoekstra told The Washington Times.

“People like Turkey, they can go basically wherever they want. … This administration, they’ve totally moved away from any leadership role in the Middle East and everybody now is a free agent doing what they think is best,” he said.

Mr. Hoekstra added: “I think people will start looking at Turkey differently because the Obama administration is providing latitude for Turkey to do things differently. Israel ought to be really worried about this. I think you are going to find members of Congress worried about this. … I don’t think it’s an anti-U.S. strategy. I think Turkey believes, watching Obama, this is not necessarily inconsistent with the Obama administration.”

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