Speaking at Harvard last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu criticized Israel's decision to continue building settlements on Palestinian land:
Jewish settlements [themselves] are illegal. How can we talk on the extension of [the] moratorium or extension of Jewish settlements?
With peace negotiations on the verge of falling apart, the comments demonstrate increasing anger at Israel from a former ally. The Turkish Foreign Minister also declared Gaza an "open prison" and stated that Palestinians have "the full right to live in their own country with full sovereignty based on 1967 territory, including Eastern Jerusalem."
Contrast that with the recent comments of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who offered a twisted defense of renewed settlement construction, as quoted in the New York Times:
It is a read-my-lips moment. This establishes credibility, not just for the Israelis but for the Palestinians. Establishing that the man [Netanyahu] is true to his word is going to be a very important asset going forward.
The Turkish criticism of Israeli policies came during a Q&A session following his recent speech at the Harvard Kennedy School. I had thanked Mr. Davutoğlu for his government's support of humanitarian aid activists who challenged Israel's blockade by sea. During the Q&A session, I asked what future Turkish foreign policy would be on the matter.
Mr. Davutoğlu's response was blunt and to the point:
Today in Gaza, 1.5 million people are living in an open prison. I saw the bodies of children from Gaza after the attacks of Israel in December 2008, using phosphoric bombs [in] a place where people are living in a concentrated manner and you are attacking from the air. It is unacceptable. We can not be silent to this tragedy.
But not all the talk was about Israel and Palestine. One questioner diplomatically brought up the matter of the Armenian genocide, which the Ottoman Empire -- Turkey's predecessor -- was responsible for. During and after World War I, it is estimated that between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire. Modern Turkey has consistently denied or avoided acknowledging that a genocide took place.
Demonstrating that the Turkish government is still resistant to acknowledging this tragic past, Mr. Davutoğlu updated past Turkish denials with a new diplomatic twist:
What we want is a just memory. Turkish-Armenian relations [are] relations of 1000 years, not 100 years. 1000 years. For centuries, they lived together. And until mid-19th century, you cannot see any Turkish-Armenian conflict. We should sit and share this history. if somebody says genocide... we are ready to discuss. But don't close the doors. Don't accuse.
While this statement goes further than past government denials, it still treats the Armenian genocide as a matter for polite discussion or debate. As Israel continues to undermine peace negotiations, Turkey's position on Palestinian freedom deserves our support. But the Turkish government has much further to go before it addresses its own human rights issues. We must not lose sight of Turkey's own human rights challenges, even as we continue to applaud the government's bold stand for an end to Palestinian suffering.