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08ANKARA180 2008-01-31 14:42:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Ankara
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Tags:   PREL TU IS 
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1. (C) Summary: Turkish/Israeli relations became tenser
following Prime Minister Erdogan's January 23 comments
criticizing the GOI for its siege of Gaza. In remarks to his
party's parliamentary caucus, Erdogan called the Gaza Strip
an "open air prison" and blamed Israel for this "humanitarian
tragedy." In contrast, the MFA has carefully crafted its
response to events in Gaza, mindful to keep Turkey's official
policy in line with that of the EU. Erdogan's pro-Palestine
stance has traditionally resonated well with his domestic
constituency; this was to have been coupled with the
announcement of aid, which was delayed. The rant has earned
the PM no bounce at a time of domestic focus on other issues.
End Summary.

2. (C) Turkey's response to Israel's recent Gaza Strip border
closing has again raised tensions between the two
governments. During a January 23 televised address to his
Justice and Development Party's (AKP) parliamentary group, PM
Erdogan criticized Israel's Palestinian policy. Calling Gaza
a "human tragedy" and an "open air prison," he condemned a
"practice that amounts to punishing nearly two million
innocent people due to some rocket attacks." Erdogan said
that he had asked the GOI to provide him with statistics on
how many Israeli citizens died as a result of such events.
In the absence of a response, he concluded that Palestinian
missiles have resulted in no Israeli causalities while "every
Israeli Defense Force (IDF) attack in the Gaza Strip kills
dozens of Palestinians." (The official transcript makes no
reference to the issue of Israeli deaths.)

3. (C) The tone of Erdogan's comments immediately elicited
GOI concern. Israeli Embassy spokesman Amit Zarouk confirmed
press reports that his MFA had called in Turkish Ambassador
Namik Tan on January 23 to express "uneasiness" with
Erdogan's assertions. Israeli Ambassador Gabby Levy conveyed
a similar message in Ankara to MFA Deputy U/S Feridun
Sinirlioglu. Tan reportedly explained that PM Erdogan was
speaking to "his own constituency" and the GOT's official
policy is "completely different." No official telephone
diplomacy has taken place between Ankara and Tel Aviv, but
Zarouk expected Israeli PM Shimon Peres and Turkish FM Ali
Babacan had likely discussed the issue during their meeting
on the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

4. (C) Two days before Erdogan's speech, the MFA issued a
much softer statement expressing "great concern" over events
in Gaza and calling for an immediate end to the GOI's
embargoes and blockades as the practices "further aggravate
the life of the people in the Gaza Strip (and) merely serve
the goals of extremist elements." MFA Israel/Palestine desk
officer Murat Omeroglu emphasized that Turkey's policy on the
issue is in line with the views expressed by the EU.

5. (C) AKP MP Zeynep Dagi told us that Erdogan's speech
reflected a growing Turkish sense that Israel's collective
punishment policy is unacceptable. Dagi dismissed the Prime
Minister's more dubious statements as stemming from his
"emotional" nature. Erdogan's speech received limited play
in the Turkish media, which split their time between Sudanese
President Bashir's and Greek PM Karamanlis' visits to Turkey
(reftels). Several prominent columnists have criticized
Erdogan for increasing tensions with Israel.

6. (C) Comment: Reflecting his personal beliefs and a
pragmatic understanding of Turkish public opinion, Erdogan
has routinely criticized the GOI following incidents in the
Palestinian territories. Though they do not like it, the
Israelis have come to expect such remarks from him. Coming
on the heels of the controversial Bashir visit, Erdogan's
decision to take such a hard stance on Gaza has caused some -
including Turkish commentators - to question the impact of
this administration's foreign policy on Turkey's image in the
West. The MFA is also beginning to show signs of damage
control fatigue. The Israeli Embassy told us that Ambassador
Tan's response to Erdogan's speech focused on philosophical
differences between the Prime and Foreign Ministries. End

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