Washington — The American Jewish community is starting to question its long-standing support of Turkish interests in Washington, following Turkey’s public denunciation of Israel’s recent military actions in Gaza.
The two countries have been trading barbs ever since Israel launched its operation against Hamas in Gaza, in a move to stop Hamas’s rocket attacks. The Turkish prime minister accused Israel of committing atrocities, and anti-Israel demonstrations erupted throughout Turkey, where public expressions of antisemitic rhetoric have startled the country’s small Jewish community.
The deteriorating relations reached a public climax in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. As Israeli President Shimon Peres sat by his side, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily accused the Jewish state of committing war crimes.
With a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in place, Erdogan urged Israel and the international community to negotiate with Hamas, the group that governs Gaza but is deemed a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and Western Europe for targeting civilians. Peres responded with what was for him an almost unprecedented display of anger.
His hands visibly shaking, Peres read from the Hamas charter, with its declaration that “the Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” Angered, Erdogan stormed off the stage after the moderator cut off his attempt at rebuttal.
The fallout between Israel and Turkey has stirred a growing sense of discomfort within the American-Jewish community, which has long been an advocate for Turkish interests in Washington. “The outburst of animosity for Israel and the anxiety awakened in the Turkish-Jewish community make me wonder what’s going on and what the future holds,” wrote David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in an open letter to Erdogan, which Harris posted on his blog.
Harris later told the Forward he is waiting to see if the outbreak of Turkish anti-Israel sentiments is a temporary reaction to the situation in Gaza or a deeper shift. “If this does signal a structural shift in Turkish foreign policy, then we have good reasons to be concerned,” he said.
Jewish organizations have been playing an active role in promoting several issues of interest to Turkey, including the country’s quest last year to become a member of the United Nations Security Council; its drive to join the European Union, and its attempts to strengthen economic and military ties with the United States.
But most contentious was Turkey’s attempt to recruit Jewish support for blocking congressional legislation recognizing the World War I Armenian genocide conducted by the Ottoman Empire, which preceded the modern state of Turkey. Citing Turkey’s relationship with Israel and concerns for the well-being of the Turkish Jewish community, several large Jewish organizations used their clout on Capitol Hill to argue against the resolution.
The strong Jewish opposition to Congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide has been waning, but some Jewish groups, led by the Anti-Defamation League, are actively opposing any move in Congress.
“Right now we have no intention of changing our position from last year,” said Jess Hordes, who heads the ADL’s Washington office. He explained the group sees the acts carried out against the Armenian people as genocide, but does not believe there is room for legislation on the issue.
The memorial day for the Armenian genocide, April 24, is traditionally when resolutions on the issue are brought to Congress, and this is expected to be a test of the state of relations between Turkey and the American Jewish community. So far, no legislation has been introduced, but Armenian activists say it is to be expected, and believe this year, with a new administration and Congress, the legislation has a better chance of passing.
Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America said the recent spat between Israel and Turkey could serve as an “educating process” for members of the Jewish community who are on the opposite side of the debate. “It is sad that our friends in the Jewish community are seeing now a side of Turkey that we have been aware of for a long time,” he added.
Turkish diplomats in Washington have ratcheted up their outreach efforts to the Jewish community in recent weeks, fearing that the fallout between Israeli and Turkish leaders could cost them the support of Jewish Americans. Turkey’s ambassador to the United States met with Jewish leaders shortly after the conflict in Gaza broke out and, according to a participant in the meeting, conveyed the message “that they understand the concerns of the community and are interested in keeping open lines of communication.”
The outreach efforts, described by one Jewish communal official as “extensive,” are being brokered by two advisers to the Turkish embassy: Noam Neusner, who formerly served as President George W. Bush’s liaison to the Jewish community, and Jay Footlik who held the same position in the Clinton administration. (Neusner has written opinion columns for the Forward.)
Repercussions of the harsh Turkish criticism over Israel’s attack in Gaza are being felt strongly in Israel, which has grown to trust Turkey as a valuable strategic partner in the region, a unique diplomatic broker for talks with Syria, and a major destination for Israeli tourism and trade. The moderate Islamic government led by Erdogan maintained a friendly approach toward Israel and was seen as a possible bridge between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries.
But Turkey’s denunciations following the Israeli decision to launch a military operation in Gaza on December 27 put this partnership at risk. In the hour-long panel discussion at Davos, Erdogan complained he was not given enough time to respond to Peres’s reply to his earlier charges. Erdogan said to Peres: “You know very well how to kill. I know very well how you killed and murdered children on the beaches [of Gaza].”
When journalist David Ignatius, who moderated the discussion, asked Erdogan to cut his remarks short, the Turkish prime minister left the stage fuming, saying he would never return. “For me, Davos is finished,” he said.
An official with the World Economic Forum who has been following the Davos meetings for several years said the Peres–Erdogan incident quickly became the talk of the conference and that it was “very not Davos” in style. “This forum,” the official added, “was always a ground for Israeli-Arab dialogue and now it feels like a big setback.”
The most immediate and significant impact of the dispute seems to be on the future of Turkish-brokered talks between Israel and Syria. After initially threatening to no longer provide mediation services, Erdogan reversed himself and said his country would be willing to resume the role if both sides are interested. It may already be too late for that, said Alon Liel, former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry and an expert on Turkey.
“As far as the Israeli public opinion is concerned, Turkey is finished. It will be very difficult for any government in Israel to sell Turkey as an honest broker,” said Liel, who played a key role in establishing a secret back channel for talks between Israel and Syria in 2006.
He added that the Turks “did a good job” in brokering the talks, but stressed that Erdogan’s recent attacks had doomed this approach. “They made a big mistake,” he said, “and it’s a pity. They really wanted it.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.