By Julian Pecquet - 04/03/13 02:14 PM EDT
Secretary of State John Kerry is making an emergency surprise trip to the Middle East this weekend amid worries that the Obama administration's newly brokered friendship between Turkey and Israel risks unraveling.
The administration is concerned about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's plans to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, a move certain to raise tensions in the volatile region. Erdoğan's announcement risks undermining the major diplomatic coup the White House claimed last month when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Erdoğan to apologize for a 2010 Israeli raid that killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American on a Gaza-bound flotilla.
“We share the international community’s deep concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people, including those residing in Gaza,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said last week.
“So we again urge all those wishing to provide international humanitarian support to Gaza to do so through established channels to ensure that the Palestinians’ humanitarian needs and Israel’s legitimate security needs are both met.”
Kerry will head to Turkey on Saturday and then on to Israel and the West Bank to help smooth things over.
"By going to Istanbul first to see Turkish officials and then going onto Israel the secretary will also have an opportunity to spur both sides to continue to take steps to deepen their normalization, and to work well together," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday. "I think we're pleased with the initial steps that were taken in the context of the president's diplomacy, and the president's visit. We need to now see further steps on both sides."
He is also expected to discuss the Syrian crisis and press the Israelis and Palestinians to commit to confidence-building measures ahead of renewing direct peace talks in three months. Haaretz reports that Kerry's efforts “on the Israeli side, (relate to) restricting settlement construction and freeing prisoners, and on the Palestinian side, undertaking not to carry out any more unilateral approaches to the U.N. or associated bodies.”
Kerry will then continue on to his pre-planned visit to South Korea, Japan and China, his first trip to northeast Asia. The Middle East stop is further evidence that the U.S. is struggling to extricate itself from the region's problems even as it must deal with rising tensions in Asia, notably the uptick in bellicose actions and rhetoric from North Korea and territorial tensions between China and its neighbors.
Kerry's trip comes as members of the Congressional Caucus on Turkey and Turkish Americans are collecting signatures on a letter, obtained by The Hill, that congratulates Netanyahu and Erdoğan. The letter is aimed at keeping the promise of improved relations between the two U.S. allies on track as the Obama administration faces mounting challenges with Iran and Syria.
"As Members of Congress who are strong supporters of peace and stability in the Near East and its two great democracies, Turkey and Israel, we write to register our support for the positive developments in the relationship between Turkey and Israel," says the letter. "In light of the extraordinary challenges confronting this tumultuous region, such efforts of reconciliation are admirable and deserve recognition."
Here's the full text of the letter:
Dear Prime Minister Erdogan and Prime Minister Netanyahu:
As Members of Congress who are strong supporters of peace and stability in the Near East and its two great democracies, Turkey and Israel, we write to register our support for the positive developments in the relationship between Turkey and Israel. In light of the extraordinary challenges confronting this tumultuous region, such efforts of reconciliation are admirable and deserve recognition.
Both Israel and Turkey are fortunate to have strong leaders who recognize, despite recent difficulties, that it is in the best interests of both countries to work together to stabilize diplomatic relations and, thus, to help stabilize the region. While it is true that friends and allies need not agree on every issue, there is agreement that the relationship is valuable and deserves to be repaired and nurtured.
Turkey and Israel have a long history of friendship. It is an alliance that benefits both countries and the region at large. Both Turkey and Israel have important roles to play in this regard, and we welcome a strong Turkey-Israel relationship which highlights these roles.
We greatly value our strong ties with both Turkey and Israel and look forward with hope to continuing progress in the renewal and strengthening of your countries' vital relationship. We consider both Israel and Turkey to be much needed pillars of stability and democracy in the region, and welcome a strong relationship not only between you, but also among the three of us-Turkey, Israel, and the United States.
STEVE COHEN ED WHITFIELD
GERALD E. CONNOLLY VIRGINIA FOXX