ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – A visit by the exiled political leader of Hamas to the Turkish capital has triggered a new diplomatic rift between U.S. allies Israel and Turkey, two years after the Turkish premier accused Israel of engaging in state terrorism against Palestinians.
Turkey on Friday rejected Israeli criticism of the visit of Khaled Mashaal and said an Israeli spokesman’s comparison of the Palestinian group to Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey was an “unfortunate statement.”
Mashaal met Thursday with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, prompting Israel’s government spokesman Raanan Gissin to condemn the visit in an interview with Turkey’s private NTV television. Mashaal left Turkey for Syria late Friday, the semiofficial Anatolia news agency said.
“How would you feel if we got together with Abdullah Ocalan?” Gissin asked NTV, referring to the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdish guerrilla group fighting for autonomy in Turkey’s southeast.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that the Israeli spokesman had made “an unfortunate statement.”
“We think the comparison in this statement is totally baseless and wrong,” the ministry statement said. “We relayed our discomfort and dissatisfaction with this statement to Israel yesterday.” The ministry also suggested that the Israeli remarks were prompted by Israeli “domestic political concerns.”
Ocalan’s rebels have been fighting for autonomy in the largely Kurdish southeast since 1984 in a war which has claimed more than 37,000 lives.
Both Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and Hamas are branded as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.
Turkey, which has close ties with both Israel and the Palestinians, has been urging Hamas, which won a landslide victory in legislative elections last month, to reject violence as it assembles a new Palestinian government.
However, in an interview with The Associated Press on a commercial plane from Ankara to Istanbul later Friday, Mashaal said that the goal of the trip to Turkey was to change Hamas’s image in the world and to make the international community apply pressure on Israel to change as well. Mashaal flew to Syria from Istanbul.
“We hope after Turkey to go to other countries because we believe that most of the leaders in Europe, in the West, have an image about Hamas, a wrong image about Hamas, because this image doesn’t reflect us. It reflects how some people, especially Israel, see Hamas.”
Mashaal said he came to Turkey at the invitation of the Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, though party leader and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declined to meet with the Hamas delegation in Ankara.
“Before we began our trip we made connections with several countries,” Mashaal told the AP on his flight to Istanbul, without naming the countries. “After we made these connections the party AKP in Turkey invited us. We talked to them as we talked to other countries, and they invited us.”
Turkey said on Thursday that it had told Mashaal to meet the expectations of the world and to adopt a conciliatory and flexible attitude. “In Ankara we had some advice from them. It was good advice. We will consider this advice, of course,” Mashaal said.
The U.S. and the European Union have threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinians unless Hamas, which has called for Israel’s destruction and killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, recognizes Israel and renounces violence.
Hamas has given no indication it will change its ideology, but has said it would stick to a long-term cease-fire if Israel reciprocates, Turkey said Thursday it had urged Mashaal to meet international expectations and adopt a more conciliatory and flexible attitude.
Israel and Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim state, have long had strong military ties and important trade links.
But relations grew strained in 2004 when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party has its roots in Turkey’s Islamic movement, accused Israel of state terrorism in an interview with Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.
Relations thawed after both Gul and Erdogan visited Israel last year, expressing hope that Turkey could act as a mediator between Israel and the Muslim world. But Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said Friday that the visit by the Hamas delegation would damage Turkey’s image severely.
“It would lead to questioning of Turkey’s determination against violence and terrorism in the world,” Baykal told a news conference. “It would have grave consequences for Turkish foreign policy.” The Foreign Ministry on Thursday said the Hamas delegation was allowed to visit Turkey “as the representatives of a group which won elections,” as part of Turkey’s efforts to further peace process.