ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish-Israeli ties soured further on Saturday after Ankara summoned Israel’s ambassador over an army general’s comments which the Turkish military said could threaten cooperation between the Middle East allies.
The Foreign Ministry called in Israeli Ambassador Gabby Levy to protest over comments by Israel’s land forces commander, reported in the Haaretz newspaper, who criticized Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus and its conflict with Kurdish separatists.
“The relevant statements of (Major General) Avi Mizrahi are ungrounded and unacceptable and as such we have requested an urgent explanation from Israeli authorities,” the ministry said in a statement.
It was the latest sign of tension between Israel and Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim member, who maintain close military ties but whose alliance has been strained by Israel’s offensive on Gaza.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said Mizrahi’s comments, which were made in a speech to a conference, could be interpreted as criticism of Turkey’s past. “The IDF spokesperson wishes to clarify that this is not the official position of the IDF,” it said.
“The Israeli ambassador was indeed called in and heard the Turkish objection and it was passed on to Jerusalem,” a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry said.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan last month angrily accused Israeli President Shimon Peres of “knowing very well how to kill” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Erdogan told Reuters in an interview late on Friday that he was saddened by the results of the Israeli elections this week, which showed gains by right-wing parties. [nLE212864]
“Unfortunately the election has painted a very dark picture,” he said on board his plane during a campaign trip.
Erdogan urged the next Israeli government to look at how it conducted policies and actions toward the Palestinians and to lift an embargo on the Palestinians who he said lived in an “open-air prison.” He said Israel’s tough stance was failing.
Mizrahi was quoted by Israeli daily Haaretz as saying Erdogan should have “looked in the mirror” before attacking Peres and that Turkey was not in a position to criticize Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands when it stations troops in northern Cyprus.
He also accused Turkey of repressing its Kurdish minority and massacring Armenians during World War One.
The Turkish General Staff said Mizrahi’s remarks were untrue and completely unacceptable and they demanded an explanation.
“The comments have been assessed at the kind of level that could damage the national interests between the two countries,” the Turkish armed forces said, suggesting military cooperation could be at stake.
Turkey and Israel have close military cooperation, which includes allowing the Israeli air force to train in Turkey. The two countries also share intelligence and have strong trade ties, including the sale of important military equipment.
“There are some people saying cut off ties with Israel, but we are not in that understanding. Before taking any such steps, and I’m not saying we are thinking of taking any such steps, we would have to carry out a big study on such a decision,” Erdogan told Reuters through an interpreter.
He said there were no plans to halt the training agreement.
Some diplomats and analysts say Turkey’s role as a mediator in the Middle East, and in particular as a neutral negotiator between Israel and Syria, suffered short-term damage because of Erdogan’s fierce criticism of Israel and defense of Hamas.
Erdogan dismissed such suggestions.
“I don’t think that way ... Turkey is a strong country that has a (unique) international position,” he said.
“We were not the ones who wanted this negotiations role. In negotiations between Syria and Israel both countries wanted Turkey to be the mediator, that is why we took part in it.”
Erdogan said critics misunderstood Turkish foreign policy if they thought the government was siding with Hamas or was against Israel. Turkey wanted peace in the region and was defending the helpless, in this case the civilians in Gaza, he said.
He said the ruling AK Party, which has roots in political Islam, had restored Turkey’s influence in the world and it was only natural that Turkey should use its new-found strength to help solve crises from the Caucasus to the Middle East.
Erdogan received a hero’s welcome in Turkey and praise in the Arab world after his outburst in Davos, but raised eyebrows among Western diplomats who asked whether Turkey was turning away from the West.
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem)
Writing by Paul de Bendern; editing by Peter Millership