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Israel Faces Deepening Tensions With Turkey Over Raid, and Bond With U.S. Frays

by : MARK LANDLER
Saturday June 5, 2010 - 19:39

WASHINGTON — Tensions deepened between Turkey and Israel on Friday, and a new fissure threatened to open between the United States and Israel, as the three countries continued to deal with the fallout from Israel’s deadly raid on a humanitarian aid flotilla off Gaza.

A senior Turkish diplomat warned that his country might sever diplomatic relations with Israel unless its government apologized for the attack, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed; consented to an international investigation; and lifted its blockade of Gaza.

“Israel is about to lose a friend; this is going to be a historical mistake,” said the diplomat, Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to Washington. “The future of our relationship will be determined by Israel’s actions.”

Israeli officials refused Turkey’s demands, saying their commandos acted in self-defense after activists on one ship set upon them with knives, clubs and metal rods. Israel also took issue with the Obama administration’s assertion that the United States had warned Israeli officials to exercise caution and restraint in intercepting the flotilla.

“I was not contacted by anyone in the administration about this,” said Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Mr. Oren said he was not aware that anybody else in the Israeli government had been called and was seeking clarification from the administration.

A spokesman for the State Department, Philip J. Crowley, said the United States had “extensive contacts” with Israel and Turkey before the flotilla set sail. “We expressed to the Israelis the need for caution and restraint in dealing with civilians, including American citizens,” he said.

With another aid ship steaming toward Gaza, this one from Ireland, the United States seems determined to avoid a repeat of the last raid. The White House issued a statement on Friday urging the ship, the Rachel Corrie, to instead go to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where its cargo could be unloaded and shipped to Gaza.

The dispute over who said what to whom symbolizes the fragility of the mood between the United States and Israel. The administration initially resisted worldwide condemnation of Israel, watering down a United Nations resolution that could have placed the blame on Israel. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. voiced support for Israel.

But privately, President Obama and other officials have pressed Israeli leaders to do more to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Administration officials said they were working to devise an investigation that would satisfy the Turkish demand for international involvement, while being acceptable to the Israelis, who said they would reject outside oversight.

The deepening imbroglio does not appear to have derailed the administration’s most pressing diplomatic priority: imposing new United Nations sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. Administration officials and European diplomats said that despite opposition from Turkey and Brazil, the Security Council was on track to pass a resolution in the next two weeks.

The focus now, officials said, was on trying to persuade these two countries to abstain rather than vote against a resolution. Turkey and Brazil brokered a last-minute deal with Tehran to further enrich some of its uranium outside the country. But the Obama administration threw cold water on the agreement, saying it did not address all the issues.

Mr. Tan declined to say how Turkey would vote in the Council. But he said that Turkey believed that sanctions were a mistake, and that Turkey and Brazil had pursued their agreement with the administration’s blessing.

The United States has tried to mollify Turkey, with long meetings and phone calls to Turkish leaders by Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mr. Tan said Turkey appreciated American pressure on Israel to release the passengers and return the bodies from the ship. But he repeated Turkey’s disappointment over the Americans’ refusal to condemn Israel.

“There is no word of condemnation, nowhere,” said Mr. Tan, who was once Turkey’s ambassador to Israel.

In Turkey, the vitriol toward Israel continued. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told Turkish television that Turkey could reduce its relations with Israel “to a minimum.”

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of breaking the biblical commandment against killing. Mr. Erdogan also talked in favorable terms about Hamas, which controls Gaza, calling the group “activists in a struggle to defend themselves.” Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist group.

American officials are watching the rift with growing alarm. Turkey’s deepening cooperation with Israel was one of the most promising diplomatic developments in the Middle East over the past decade, said a senior administration official. “We’re not taking anything for granted,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation. “We’ve seen how much emotion there is in Turkey.”

The administration, he said, is studying proposals for an Israeli-run investigation that could include outside participants. One model would be South Korea’s international investigation of the torpedo attack that sank its warship in March.

Israeli officials do not dismiss the idea of international participation, but one said, “We’re not there yet.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/w...



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