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.”
Israel is worried. “Turkey and Israel used to have a very positive cooperative relationship,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told reporters. “Over the last year or so, there’s been a less positive atmosphere in the relationship. Some would even say a cloud.”
What happened? Critics of Turkey say the Islamic-rooted AKP has an agenda: Move Turkey away from its secular democracy. Supporters say Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008 and 2009 to end the firing of rockets prompted Ankara to be more critical and aid Hamas.
The AKP and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have won two successive parliamentary elections and an increased voter share. Turkey’s constitutional court has warned the AKP about its growing anti-secular positions. The military in Turkey stands as a check against any political movement to abandon secular government. In 2000, for example, it purged Islamists from senior government posts.
Mr. Erdogan has sided with Iran in its dispute with Washington, which has worked to impose new economic sanctions on Tehran to stop its suspected nuclear-weapons program. Turkey voted last week in the United Nations against a U.S.-sponsored sanctions resolution that won Security Council support.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was guarded in his response to Turkey’s vote.
“I’ll be honest. I was disappointed in Turkey’s decision on the Iranian sanctions,” he told reporters Friday. “That said, Turkey is a decades-long ally of the United States and other members of NATO. Turkey continues to play a critical part in the alliance. We have a strong military-to-military relationship with Turkey. We obviously have facilities in Turkey. So allies don’t always agree on things.”
But some see Turkey differently. “I think Turkey has been drifting away from the Western alliance and from Israel since Erdogan’s AKP party came to power,” said Jim Phillips, a foreign-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “The AKP is an Islamist political party that seeks to undermine Turkey’s long-standing secular nationalism and replace it with an assertive Islamism that seeks better ties with Muslim nations and a reorientation from the West.”
Mr. Phillips said Turkey’s willingness to allow pro-Hamas activists to launch the flotilla from its ports is part of a new foreign policy strategy.
“When the Turkish Islamists successfully provoked a violent reaction from Israeli soldiers boarding the ship it aroused a backlash of Turkish popular opinion against Israel and the United States, which the AKP will exploit to further its Islamist goals in Turkey and the region,” he said.
Steven A. Cook, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there is a “whole host of reasons” why Turkey is criticizing Israel and supporting its enemies.
“I think the most important one to remember is that the Turks don’t necessarily see themselves as realigning,” Mr. Cook said. “They see themselves as having a 360 foreign policy, that they are standing on principle when it comes to the situation in the Palestinian areas. This is their way of pressuring the Israelis into doing the right thing. There is a lot of debate about whether that is effective. My own sense is that it is not.”
A 2008 Congressional Research Service report noted that Turkey had begun to broaden its foreign policy ambitions.
“The AKP has drawn closer to Iran, partly because Turkey believes that it would be harmed by a possible conflict over Iran’s nuclear program and partly because it seeks to diversify its sources of energy,” the CRS said. “The AKP’s policies toward Iran, Syria, Hamas and Sudan differ from those of the United States and some in the international community. It acts in what it views as Turkey’s national interests, at times seeming to disregard the possible reaction in Washington.”
Turkey’s outreach to Iran was underscored last month when it announced, with Brazil, a proposal to exchange Iran’s enriched uranium for special fuel used in medical reactors.