- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2010

Israel stands to lose its main Muslim ally in the Middle East — Turkey — over a recent raid on a flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in which nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed by Israeli forces, according to two senior Turkish officials.

Ibrahim Kalin, chief adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Omer Celik, vice chairman of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), were in Washington last week to demand an independent, U.N.-backed inquiry into the flotilla incident and explain Turkey’s June 9 vote at the U.N. Security Council against U.S.-backed sanctions on Iran.

In remarks at a Middle East Institute conference on Friday, Mr. Celik accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of trying to derail relations with Turkey.

Describing the Turkish-Israeli relationship as two Formula 1 cars racing toward each other at high speed, Mr. Celik warned “they are going to crash.”

He said people in the U.S. have been asking whether Turkey is aware of the consequences of losing Israel’s friendship, “and we ask, is Israel not [thinking] what will be the end result of losing Turkey?”

Mr. Celik said Israel should apologize to Turkey for the flotilla incident.

Israeli commandos clashed with a group of activists on board a ship that was attempting to break an Israeli blockade of Gaza last month. Eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American citizen were killed in the raid.

Mr. Kalin said the incident had created a “deep wound” in Turkish society. He and Mr. Celik said the Israeli inquiry into the incident lacked credibility and the U.S. must support an international inquiry commission under the auspices of the United Nations.

If Israel does not meet Turkey’s demands, then the relationship will deteriorate further, Mr. Celik said.

Mr. Kalin said he hoped there would be some “common sense coming from the Israeli side to repair this relationship.”

Israel last week eased its blockade on Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas that opposes Israel’s right to exist.

In a conversation with reporters, Mr. Kalin called the blockade illegal and unsustainable, saying it doesn’t address Israel’s security concerns. He said the blockade must be lifted and an international mechanism put in place to control what goes in and out of Gaza.

Turkey’s relationship with the Jewish American community has come under strain in the aftermath of the flotilla incident. Many of the Jewish groups invited to a meeting with Mr. Celik and Mr. Kalin boycotted the event.

Mr. Celik said those who stayed away had made a mistake.

“We want a close relationship with the Jewish community. However, if the Jewish community … starts from the very beginning suggesting Israel is right on every issue, then they will hurt their friends,” he said.

He added that the reaction from the Jewish community in the U.S. had been “very negative.”

“If the Jewish community expects us to behave differently on an issue where we have the right stance, we cannot behave differently,” Mr. Celik said.

A number of U.S. lawmakers also have voiced their concern over Turkey’s actions recently.

Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, said last week that “there will be a cost if Turkey [continues] growing closer to Iran and more antagonistic to the state of Israel.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley, Nevada Democrat, said as far as she is concerned “Turkey is responsible for the nine deaths aboard that ship, it is not Israel’s troops that are responsible.”

Mr. Kalin said he did not see a crisis in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, but added that the spate of anti-Turkey comments was “not responsible policy.”

Separately, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat, sent a letter to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars criticizing the think tank’s decision to bestow upon Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu a public service award.

In a letter to the think tank’s president, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, Mr. Ackerman expressed his “deep concern and dismay” over the award.

Turkey’s foreign policy under Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s leadership is rife with illegality, irresponsibility and hypocrisy,” Mr. Ackerman wrote.

Mr. Kalin described Mr. Ackerman’s letter as “very disappointing,” and added, “we completely reject that attitude.”

Turkey’s decision to oppose a fourth round of U.S.-backed U.N. sanctions on Iran have injected another dose of tension into the U.S.-Turkey relationship.

Mr. Kalin acknowledged that the words he has heard from U.S. officials in discussions on the June 9 vote were “disappointment and displeasure.” But he said Turkey voted against the sanctions to keep Iran at the negotiating table.

In May, Turkey and Brazil worked out a nuclear fuel swap plan under which Iran would ship a portion of its nuclear fuel outside the country for enrichment purposes.

The West, including the U.S., rejected this deal on the grounds that it does not end the possibility that Iran can build a nuclear weapon and violates U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Celik said if Turkey had not kept Iran at the negotiating table, “we might have witnessed very unfavorable developments in Iran… By casting a no vote, Turkey actually prevented this possible instability.”

He said the fuel-swap deal with Iran was still on the table.

The ambassadors of the U.S., Britain, France and Germany met with Turkey’s foreign minister last week and urged Turkey to continue its diplomatic initiatives with Iran.

“How are we supposed to do this if we voted yes for the sanctions and broke all trust between Turkey and Iran,” Mr. Kalin said.