Kerry pushes for Turkish role in peace talks, but Israelis, Palestinians say ‘no’

McClatchy NewspapersApril 7, 2013 

— Amid fears that a U.S.-backed reconciliation between Israel and Turkey might unravel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Turkish leaders Sunday that it was vital for peace in the region that the two close U.S. allies get their relations “back on track in its full measure.”

At the beginning of a diplomatic blitz that he hoped would lay the groundwork for the resumption of long-moribund Palestinian-Israeli talks, Kerry made clear in Istanbul that he intended to build on Israel-Turkey rapprochement as the first successful step toward regional stability. He then traveled on to Israel and the West Bank, where he met late Sunday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and was scheduled to meet Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But it was hardly clear that the United States could parlay Israel’s apology last month for the deaths of nine people during a 2010 commando raid on a Turkish ship bringing aid to Gaza into a broader role for Turkey in Middle East peace talks.

Israeli officials reacted with hostility Sunday to the idea of a Turkish role in peace talks, and differences of opinion were evident between U.S. and Turkish officials over the way forward.

During a joint appearance with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Kerry did not address Turkey’s demand that Israel lift its embargo on Gaza, and he remained silent when Davutoglu defended plans by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, a fundamentalist Palestinian group that the United States considers a terrorist organization. Kerry met with Erdogan as well, but U.S. officials said nothing about the substance or tone of those talks.

Kerry said he favored other Turkish demands, including that Israel pay compensation to the families of the eight Turks and one Turkish-American killed in the raid. He also urged the two countries to exchange ambassadors.

“We would like to see this relationship…get back on track in its full measure,” Kerry told reporters after meeting Davutoglu.

Kerry also urged Turkish leaders to tamp down their country’s apparent gloating over the Israeli apology, which President Barack Obama brokered last month during a meeting with Netanyahu. Billboards have gone up in Ankara, the Turkish capital, showing a satisfied Erdogan and a dejected Netanyahu, with a headline thanking Erdogan for securing the apology.

Kerry said he accepted Davutoglu’s assertion that the Turkish government was not responsible for the excess enthusiasm and had taken steps “to prevent any sense of triumphalism,” which has rankled Israeli officials and their U.S. supporters. Kerry said it was important that “everybody” – apparently meaning Israeli officials and their supporters in Congress – take note that the Turkish government had “responded sensitively and thoughtfully” to complaints about the way the Israeli apology was being portrayed in Turkey.

Kerry said Turkey, with its booming economy, secular state and democratic order, could be “an important contributor” to the peace process by helping revive the Palestinian economy, and it could be “very helpful” in helping transform Gaza and in “helping create the climate of peace.”

That vision found few backers among Israeli and Palestinian officials, however.

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of international relations, called Kerry’s assertion that Turkey could be “an important contributor” to peace a “poor idea." Tzipi Livni, Israel’s minister of justice and lead peace negotiator, also was hesitant to embrace the concept. "The idea is interesting, but it could take time," she said.

In past years, peace talks have largely ignored the subject of the coastal Gaza strip, while Israeli officials have argued that until Hamas can fully reconcile with the Fatah movement, which controls the West Bank, there can be no progress on a final status agreement.

"The Gaza Strip can be the elephant in the room. No one talks about it openly, but a comprehensive peace deal would also have to include a solution for Gaza," said one U.S. diplomat based in the region who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. "All of the countries that have ties with Gaza, including Egypt and Jordan and especially Turkey, are being called upon for the newest diplomatic effort."

Steinitz said, however, that he did not see any reason for Hamas to be brought into the fold. “We do not negotiate with Hamas, so any ties [Erdogan may have] with Hamas are irrelevant,” Steinitz said.

Palestinian officials based in Ramallah also dismissed reports that Turkey might play a mediating role, calling any potential Turkish mediation "ill-founded" and "ineffective." Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki said his government preferred relying on the so-called quartet – the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations – as an intermediary because of their influence on the Israeli government.

But Palestinian official speaking privately said the real reason behind the hesitation to involve Turkey was concern that Erdogan would favor Hamas over the more moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

Kerry, who added a stop in Turkey on short notice to a scheduled trip that will include stops at the G-8 summit in Britain and visits to Japan, South Korea and China, also pledged to continue seeking a diplomatic solution with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program, despite the apparent failure of talks in Kazakhstan Saturday.

“It is important to continue to talk and try to find common ground,” he said, adding that “this is not an endless process.”

The most emotional moment of Kerry’s visit to Turkey came when for five minutes he paid a personal tribute to Anne Smedinghoff, a 25-year-old foreign service officer who was killed in a Taliban attack in Afghanistan on Saturday.

“I want to emphasize,” he said, choking up briefly, “that Anne Smedinghoff was everything that is right about our Foreign Service. She was smart and capable and committed to our country,” Kerry said, recalling that she had assisted him during his recent visit to Afghanistan.

Allam reported from Ramallah, West Bank, Gutman, from Istanbul. McClatchy special correspondent Sheera Frenkel contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

Email: hallam@mcclatchydc.com, rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @hannahallam, @roygutmanmcc

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