ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey on Monday criticized U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for asking Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to delay his planned visit to the Palestinian Gaza Strip, in a blunt put-down that underlined often prickly ties between the NATO allies.
Erdogan, who has for years spoken of his desire to visit the Palestinian enclave, said last week he planned to go in late May after an official visit to the United States earlier in the same month.
But during a visit to Turkey on Sunday, Kerry said he had asked the Turkish leader to delay his visit so as not to upset U.S. efforts to revive Ankara’s ties with Israel and Middle East peace talks.
“Mr. Kerry’s statement ... from a diplomatic perspective was objectionable, wrong and was incorrect,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters in Ankara.
“Only the Turkish government decides when and where the prime minister or any other Turkish official travels to,” said Arinc, who also serves as the government spokesman.
During a visit to Turkey in March, Kerry also called a comment by Erdogan likening Zionism to crimes against humanity “objectionable”, in a disagreement that has cast a pall over talks between Turkey and the United States.
Erdogan had been expected to visit Hamas-controlled Gaza this month but postponed his trip, apparently at the request of the United States. However, Arinc said Erdogan would have visited this month had his schedule allowed.
He will travel to Washington to meet U.S. President Barack Obama on May 16.
Hamas’s refusal to recognize the Jewish state and past vows to destroy it are a key reason behind an Israeli blockade of the coastal territory since Hamas seized it from the more moderate pro-Western Fatah movement in 2007.
Europe and the United States have long demanded Hamas drop violence and recognize Israel as a condition for any dialogue.
Erdogan’s planned trip would also come at a sensitive time for Turkish-Israeli relations, frozen after the 2010 killing by Israeli marines of nine Turks aboard a Gaza-bound aid ship.
In March Obama brokered a first step in reconciliation between Turkey and Israel, two main allies of Washington in the Middle East, by persuading Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize to Turkey over the incident.
In another sign of rapprochement, an Israeli delegation was in Ankara on Monday for the first time since 2010 to discuss compensation to the victims’ families.
“The meeting was generally a positive meeting ... the amount of compensation was not discussed ... and was not determined, but methods and rules of calculating the amount were discussed during the meeting,” Arinc said after the talks.
Arinc said a second and possible third meeting would be held in order to resolve the issue, which would be a “major step toward full restoration of diplomatic ties”.
The head of the Turkish delegation meeting the Israelis said the next meeting would be held in the next few days.
Turkey cut its once extensive ties with the Jewish state after the so-called “Mavi Marmara” incident in 2010, named after the Turkish ship which led the flotilla that tried to breach Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
Ankara expelled Israel’s ambassador and froze military cooperation after a U.N. report into the incident, released in September 2011, largely exonerated the Jewish state.
It set precise conditions for normalizing ties - an apology, compensation and Israel lifting its embargo on Gaza.
A mending of ties between two of Washington’s main allies in the region could bolster U.S. influence in the Middle East, help coordination to contain the spillover from the Syrian civil war and ease Israel’s diplomatic isolation among its neighbors.
But for all the diplomatic flurry, a full restoration of ties still appeared some way off.
Israel has made clear it did not commit to ending its Gaza blockade as part of the reconciliation, an oft-repeated Turkish demand, saying days after the apology that it could clamp down even harder on the enclave if security was threatened.
Writing by Parisa Hafezi and Jonathon Burch; editing by Mike Collett-White