US, Turkey talk Israel on eve of Obama visit

US, Turkey talk Israel on eve of Obama visit

US, Turkey talk Israel on eve of Obama visit

Turkish FM Davutoğlu (R) and his US counterpart Kerry shake hand during a joing press conference in Ankara. DAILY NEWS photo, Selahattin SÖNMEZ

Washington has markedly accelerated its exchange of views with Ankara ahead of a landmark visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Israel on March 20, during which the renewal of the Middle East peace process will top the agenda.

The eagerness of the U.S. to secure Turkey’s help in reviving the process, which has been frozen over two years, was already clear. Nonetheless, as Secretary of State John Kerry initiated a telephone conversation with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on March 14, the second conversation between the two in as many days, this willingness has become more discernible.

Yet despite the Turkish leadership’s readiness to have a say in a prospective peace process, in line with the regional role it cast for itself, the current state of affairs in its bilateral relations with Israel stands in the way of fulfilling such a role.

Bilateral relations between the formerly allied countries crumbled after Israeli troops stormed the Mavi Marmara aid ship in international waters in May 2010, to enforce a naval blockade of the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip, killing nine Turks in clashes with civilian activists on board.

The rift has continued despite U.S. efforts to encourage a rapprochement between the two regional powers, both of whose cooperation it needs in order to address changes sweeping the Middle East.

Officials shy away

Despite this prospects for the renewal of the Middle East peace process were said to have dominated the conversation between Kerry and Davutoğlu, although both Turkish and U.S. officials shied away from sharing content of the talks.

Both Turkish and U.S. officials, speaking with the Hürriyet Daily News, ruled out any extraordinary or specific reason related to the Middle East issue for the extension of the conversation to a second day. Scheduling matters on both sides led to the interruption of the conversation on March 13, which still took half an hour, according to the Turkish sources.

The first call, which took place on March 13, was initiated by Kerry to inform his counterpart about his tour of Europe and the Middle East, which had brought him to Turkey on March 1. On March 14 Kerry took the initiative again to wrap up the interrupted conversation, a move that pleased Ankara.

“Mr. Kerry’s lengthy reporting of his meetings and of his perceptions was a gesture appreciated by our minister,” a Turkish official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“At a time when formation of a new coalition government in Israel seems imminent, and U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel is so close and given the fact that Mr. Obama will also hold meetings with Palestinian leaders, there are certain sticky points which should be treated with utmost care amid efforts for such renewal,” the same official said, adding that he was speaking of Ankara’s general principles not of the content of the conversation.

“It is obvious which side has been blocking the process each time and such manners should be avoided,” he said, referring to Israel. “A meaningful process should be started with determination and without any empty talk. We also have a role to play for the renewal of the process,” he added without elaborating on how such a role could be played in the current situation of bilateral relations with Israel, or whether this matter had been discussed during the telephone conversation.

Responsibility falls on Israel: Ankara

Ankara firmly maintains that responsibility falls on the shoulders of Israel for restoration of relations. Turkey has been demanding a formal apology, compensation for victims and the families of the dead and for the Gaza blockade to be lifted.

At the time, Kerry said one of the reasons taking him to Ankara was the revival of the Middle East peace process and seeking Turkey’s help.

“Turkey is always ready to do whatever it needs for a fair two-state solution based on the 1967 borders,” Davutoğlu said previously. “If Israel wants to hear positive statements from Turkey, it needs to review its attitude. 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.”

The joint press conference where these remarks were delivered on March 1 was overshadowed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s likening of Zionism to crimes against humanity, remarks which Kerry publicly labeled “objectionable.”

Just a day before the first conversation between Kerry and Davutoğlu, 89 members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Erdoğan on March 12, urging him to retract his comments blasting Zionism.

The issue did not come up during the conversations on March 13 and 14, the Turkish diplomat said.