ISTANBUL // Israel is the biggest threat to peace in the Middle East, the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday. Speaking in Paris during a two-day visit to France, Mr Erdogan renewed his criticism of last year's military assault by Israel on the Gaza Strip, saying that it had used disproportionate force. "It's not because we are Muslims that we take this position. Our position is humanitarian," he said.
"It is Israel that is the principal threat to regional peace," Mr Erdogan added. His accusation marks a new low in relations between the two countries, which relatively recently had close political and military ties. His accusation came one day after Israel's foreign minister said Mr Erdogan was turning into a leader with populist and dictatorial traits. The latest spat reflects the depth of the crisis in relations between two key US partners who have drifted apart considerably in the 15 months since the Gaza invasion. Israeli officials accuse the religiously conservative government of Turkey of siding with Israel's enemies in the region, while Turkey says Israel's policies in the Palestinian Territories are indefensible.
Israel's right-wing government regards Mr Erdogan's position as populist and dangerous. "The problem is not Turkey, the problem is Erdogan," Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, said on Tuesday. Mr Lieberman accused Mr Erdogan of "slowly turning into" the Libyan leader Muammer Qadafi or the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, two controversial politicians viewed as dictators by their critics.
In Ankara, the Turkish foreign ministry said Mr Lieberman's remarks were "unacceptable". The Israeli foreign minister was reacting to a speech Mr Erdogan gave during the launch last weekend of an Arab-language channel of the Turkish state television company TRT. In his speech, Mr Erdogan stressed his solidarity with people in the Muslim world, including "Jerusalem and Gaza". He said Turkey could not remain silent, given what was happening in Gaza.
Turkey and Israel are two of the biggest military and economic powers in the region. A break-up of their alliance, sealed by an agreement for close military co-operation in 1996, would cost Israel its closest friend in the Muslim world. It would also make it more difficult for Turkey to present itself as an honest broker that can talk to all sides of the Middle East conflict. firstname.lastname@example.org