a COMMENT by Turkey’s prime minister, likening Zionism to crimes against humanity, is “objectionable”, US secretary of state John Kerry said yesterday as a row over the remarks continued.
Mr Kerry, on his first trip to a Muslim nation since taking office, met Turkish leaders for talks meant to focus on Syria’s civil war and bilateral interests including energy security and counter-terrorism.
But the comment by Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan at a United Nations meeting in Vienna this week – which has been widely condemned by Israel and United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon – overshadowed the trip.
“We not only disagree with it, we found it objectionable,” Mr Kerry told a news conference with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Mr Erdogan told the UN Alliance of Civilisations meeting in Vienna on Wednesday: “Just as with Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it has become necessary to view Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.”
Mr Erdogan’s rhetoric on Israel has won applause from conservative supporters at home but raised concern among Western allies. Ties between Israel and Turkey have been frosty since 2010, when Israeli marines killed nine Turks in fighting aboard a Palestinian aid ship that tried to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
“If we must talk about hostile acts, then Israel’s attitude and its brutal killing of nine of our civilian citizens in international waters may be called hostile,” Mr Davutoglu said, adding Turkey had always stood against anti-Semitism.
“No single statement carries a price higher than the blood of a person… If Israel wants to hear positive statements from Turkey, it needs to reconsider its attitude both towards us and towards the West Bank,” he told the news conference.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sharply condemned the remark on Thursday night, calling it a “dark and mendacious statement, the likes of which we thought had passed from the world.”
A UN statement also hit out at the language, saying: “If the comment about Zionism was interpreted correctly, then it was not only wrong but contradicts the very principles on which the Alliance of Civilisations is based.”
The statement said Mr Ban “believes it is unfortunate that such hurtful and divisive comments were uttered at a meeting being held under the theme of responsible leadership.”
Mr Kerry told reporters yesterday that he had raised the issue directly with Mr Davutoglu and would do so with Mr Erdogan.
Mr Kerry said Turkey and Israel were both key US allies and urged them to restore closer ties.
“Given the many challenges that the neighbourhood faces, it is essential that both Turkey and Israel find a way to take steps in order to bring about or to rekindle their historic cooperation,” Mr Kerry said.
“I think that’s possible but obviously we have to get beyond the kind of rhetoric that we’ve just seen recently.”
The collapse of Ankara’s ties with Israel have undermined US hopes that Turkey could play a role as a broker in the broader region.
Turkey has demanded a formal apology for the 2010 incident, compensation for victims and their families and for the Gaza blockade to be lifted. Israel has voiced “regret” and has offered to pay into what it called a “humanitarian fund” through which casualties and relatives could be compensated.
Turkey’s relations with the US have always been prickly, driven more by a mutual need for intelligence than any deep cultural affinity.
Mr Erdogan’s populist rhetoric is aimed partly at a domestic audience wary of Washington’s influence.
But the two have strong common interests. Officials said Syria would top the agenda in Mr Kerry’s meetings with Mr Erdogan and president Abdullah Gul, building on the discussions in Rome between 11 mostly European and Arab nations within the “Friends of Syria” group.
Turkey has been one of the fiercest critics of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.