Turkey makes Netanyahu and Obama talks tougher
Is Israeli PM guilty of endangering the US even more by falling out with Turkey?
The Middle East situation, a diplomatic minefield at the best of times for an American president, has become even more complicated as Barack Obama prepares to host the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Washington tomorrow.
Turkey and Israel, both important US allies in the region, have been at each other's throats for the past month over the storming of the aid ship Mavi Marmara, part of the 'Freedom Flotilla', by Israeli commandos, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists.
Since then, Turkey has refused Israeli military planes the use of its airspace. Now Ankara has demanded an apology from Israel - and has threatened to cut diplomatic ties if one is not forthcoming.
Today, Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the newspaper Hurriyet: "Israel has three paths ahead: It either apologises, or accepts the findings from an international commission investigating the raid, or Turkey will cut off ties."
He added: "It will be enough if their own commission rules that the raid was unfair and they apologise in line with the commission's verdict, but we have to see the verdict first."
But Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman is in no mood for compromise: "We don't have any intention to apologise. We think that the opposite is true," he said on a visit to Latvia.
Until the Freedom Flotilla commando raid, Turkey had been Israel's most important Muslim ally, with strong trade ties and military cooperation that extended to joint training exercises. Turkey was also Israelis' favourite holiday destination. It suited America in particular to have two such strong regional allies on friendly terms. All that has changed - first with Israel's internationally condemned assault on Gaza in 2008 and now with its deadly commando raid on a civilian cargo ship.
Tomorrow, President Obama faces a delicate situation. Not only must he persuade Netanyahu to participate in direct negotiations with the Palestinians, but he must also persuade him to make peace with the Turks.
But the situation is even more delicate for Netanyahu. For direct negotiations with the Palestinian to become a reality, Netanyahu will have to agree to halt all building of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and east Jerusalem. This issue is particularly raw for the Obama administration since Israel approved a plan to build 1,600 new homes in east Jerusalem during a visit by vice president Joe Biden in March.
A humiliated Biden later reportedly told Netanyahu that Israeli actions were threatening the safety of US troops: "This is starting to get dangerous for us. What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace." It's a view that's starting to take hold in the US, previously seen as an unquestioning supporter of Israel.
With Israel now endangering US relations with its crucial Muslim ally Turkey, Netanyahu may have to accept some tough medicine from Obama if he hopes to stay friends. ·
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