US Secretary of State John Kerry criticized in Ankara Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's remarks describing Zionism as a crime against humanity, overshadowing a key visit originally expected to focus on Syria and bilateral interests from energy security to counterterrorism.
Kerry arrived in Ankara on his first visit to Turkey since taking over the post in February. Kerry's first stop in Ankara on Friday was the US Embassy where he spoke at a memorial service for a local Turkish security guard who was killed in a Feb. 1 suicide attack at the embassy gates. Kerry presented the man's family with an award for heroism.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Kerry said the US does not share the same point of view with regard to Erdoğan's remarks. "We not only disagree with it, we found it objectionable," Kerry said.
Kerry stressed the "urgent need to promote a spirit of tolerance, and that includes all of the public statements made by all leaders."
Kerry said he had raised the comments "very directly" with Davutoğlu and would do the same when he saw Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan later on Friday.
He pointed out that Turkey and Israel are both critical regional allies of the United States and that they expect the two to overcome the current impasse in their relations as well as work together to address regional issues.
Speaking at the UN Alliance of Civilizations conference in Vienna on Wednesday, Erdoğan complained of prejudices against Muslims and said Islamophobia should be considered a crime against humanity "just like Zionism, like anti-Semitism and like fascism."
In a sign, however, that this could be a slip of tongue, the official Anatolia news agency had sent out a correction, removing the reference to Zionism from Erdoğan's remarks, an hour after reporting them. It said the correction was "made by the source" but gave no other explanation.
The remarks received a barrage of criticism from the White House, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Israel after a video recording of the speech was published by a Geneva-based nongovernmental organization, UN Watch.
In response to a question over Turkey's "hostile remarks" against Israel, Davutoğlu said at the press conference in Ankara that Turkey had never adopted a hostile manner against any country.
Recalling Israel's deadly attack on the Mavi Marmara ship bound for Gaza in 2010, Davutoğlu described the Israeli operation on the civilian ship in international waters as a hostile act which resulted in the killing of nine civilians.
"If we must talk about hostile acts, then Israel's attitude and its brutal killing of nine of our civilian citizens in international waters may be called hostile," Davutoğlu said, adding Turkey had always stood against anti-Semitism.
He pointed out that Turkey has presented numerous opportunities to Israel to restore relations but that Tel Aviv tried to legitimize its aggressive behavior seen over the past few years instead.
He added: "If Israel wants to hear positive statements from Turkey, it needs to review its attitude. It needs to review its attitude toward us, and it needs to review its attitude toward the people in the region and especially the West Bank settlements issue."
He underlined that Turkey and Israel had worked closely on regional matters, including a peace deal with Syria until the 2009 assault on Gaza and the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010.
Davutoğlu also underlined that Turkey is ready to provide any support needed for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.
Speaking aboard Kerry's plane as he flew from Rome to Ankara on Friday, a senior US official said the Obama administration was profoundly concerned by and disappointed in Erdoğan's remark at a UN conference in Vienna.
"This was particularly offensive, frankly, to call Zionism a crime against humanity. … It does have a corrosive effect [on relations]," the US official told reporters. "I am sure the secretary will be very clear about how dismayed we were to hear it," the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.
"To state the obvious, it complicates our ability to do all of the things that we want to do together when we have such a profound disagreement about such an important thing."
Ban, who was present at the Alliance of Civilizations meeting on Wednesday, said through his spokesman that Erdoğan's description of Zionism as a crime against humanity was "hurtful and divisive.” The spokesman said in a statement that the secretary-general had heard Erdoğan's speech through an interpreter. "If the comment about Zionism was interpreted correctly, then it was not only wrong but contradicts the very principles on which the Alliance of Civilizations is based,” said the spokesman.
Turkey is a co-sponsor, along with Spain, of the UN Alliance of Civilizations initiative to promote tolerance and understanding between various religions.
"The secretary-general believes it is unfortunate that such hurtful and divisive comments were uttered at a meeting being held under the theme of responsible leadership,” Ban's spokesman said.
Before Kerry's arrival, the White House also criticized Erdoğan's remarks. "We reject Prime Minister Erdoğan's characterization of Zionism as a crime against humanity, which is offensive and wrong," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. "We encourage people of all faiths, cultures and ideas to denounce hateful actions and to overcome the differences of our times," he said.
The Zionism remark is also likely to further deepen the rift between Turkey and Israel, two former allies whose ties have been in a crisis over the past few years.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sharply condemned the remark late Thursday, calling it a "dark and mendacious statement the likes of which we thought had passed from the world."
Zionism, the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state in the “promised land,” was the main force behind the establishment of the state of Israel, but critics especially in Muslim countries say it is a racist and colonialist ideology associated with the unfair confiscation of Palestinian lands.
In 1975, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating that Zionism was a form of racism. This resolution was revoked in 1991.
Jewish groups were also up in arms against Erdoğan's remark. Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow and the head of the Conference of European Rabbis, said Erdoğan's criticism of Zionism amounted to anti-Semitism and even brought up the claims of an Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in the 20th century in his statement.
"This is an ignorant and hateful attack on the Jewish people and against a movement with peace at its core, which relegates Prime Minister Erdoğan to the level of [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, to Soviet leaders who used anti-Zionism as a euphemism for anti-Semitism," Goldschmidt said in an emailed statement. "The irony of these comments will not be lost on the families of those slaughtered during the Armenian genocide, a crime still not recognized by the Turkish government," he added.
Armenians claim 1.5 million Armenians were killed during World War I as part of a genocide campaign. Turkey vehemently denies the allegations and says both Armenians and Turks were killed when Armenians revolted against the Ottoman Empire to establish an independent state in eastern Anatolia.
The Conference of European Rabbis is an umbrella group of 700 religious leaders in Europe, where an estimated 1.7 millions Jewish people live. About 17,000 Jews live in Turkey, a country of 76 million people.
Ties between Israel and Turkey have been frosty since 2010, when nine Turks were killed by Israeli commandos who stormed their ship carrying aid to Palestinians in Gaza, under a naval blockade. In recent weeks, there has been a run of reports in the Turkish and Israeli press about efforts to repair relations, including a senior diplomatic meeting earlier this month in Rome and military equipment transfers. The reports have not been confirmed by either government.