Last week, while New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was in Istanbul talking to businessmen, journalists and academics about the “fight for Turkey’s soul,” R. Hakan Tekin, Turkey’s chief representative in Los Angeles, offered up a local version of his country’s official perspective.
“We have a saying in Turkish: ‘Friends speak the bitter truth,’ ” the consul general said over an afternoon cup of Turkish coffee in his office on Wilshire Boulevard. “Turkey is a friend of Israel and is speaking the bitter truth — that their policies and practices in the region are not helping them.”
With Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling last month’s flotilla incident an example of “state terrorism” and the nation’s ministry of foreign affairs saying that “Israel has once again clearly demonstrated that it does not value human lives,” it might be hard to remember that the two countries had, until recently, long been steadfast allies. Tekin, who has headed the Los Angeles consulate since April 2007, experienced the closeness of Turkish-Israeli relations firsthand.
“When I first started here, my first contacts were with the Jewish community,” Tekin said. He connected with leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, to name a few. Last November, he sat on a panel at Pepperdine University titled “Finding Common Ground: Reconciliation Among the Children of Abraham” with his Israeli counterpart in Los Angeles, Jacob Dayan. “Jacob is a very good friend of mine,” Tekin said. “We have a very close relationship. Of course, we are not agreeing on everything, especially these days.”
But even back in “the good old days,” when Tekin spoke to audiences at the American Jewish Committee or at Hillcrest Country Club, the Q-and-A sessions weren’t easy. Asked to recall some of the more challenging questions he was asked, Tekin didn’t hesitate: “ ‘Why is Turkey so against Israel?’ Or, ‘Why didn’t we criticize Hamas as much when they were shooting rockets at Israel?’ ”
But though Tekin used to field questions about anti-Semitism in Turkey or questions about Iran, he is sure about one thing: “If I had an event with a Jewish group these days, the only issue would be the flotilla incident.”
And from Tekin’s point of view — which is to say, Turkey’s — the ramifications of the flotilla incident on the Turkish-Israeli relationship could not be more severe: “Israel is on the verge of losing Turkey’s friendship,” the veteran diplomat said.
“The flotilla incident was a historic event for us,” Tekin said. “Never before had any group of Turkish civilians been attacked by a foreign military. So this is something serious. And this is not a government issue. The overwhelming majority of the public is furious about this.”
Political observers — including Friedman — have pointed out that Erdogan has used the flotilla incident to build political support in the lead-up to next year’s election.
“Like every politician,” Tekin responded. He pointed to Rep. Adam Schiff and the 43 other members of California’s congressional delegation who co-sponsored a bill that would affirm that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against the Armenian people between 1915 and 1923. “Why are they so enthusiastic about the Armenian issue? And why are none of the congressmen from Montana co-sponsoring? Because this is politics. It’s a game of votes. There’s a big Armenian community here, and they [California’s representatives] want to cater to that constituency.”
Tekin was also well aware that some Jews in Israel and in the United States had also begun taking a renewed interest in “the Armenian issue,” particularly as the relationship between Israel and Turkey became more strained.
“There’s no connection between these two things, the controversy over the events of 1915, the Armenian issue — a historical issue — and Turkish-Israeli relations,” Tekin said. “And if now we see some members of Congress or some Jewish organizations saying, ‘It’s payback time: Now we should punish Turkey by recognizing the Armenian Genocide,’ and moving toward passing a resolution in Congress, I think it would be really shortsighted, counterproductive and a very opportunistic approach. It would seriously further damage the Turkish-Israeli relationship. It could cause long-term damages.”
Tekin continued: “If you look at a historical issue, you have to evaluate it within its context, within its parameters. If you are adopting a position on a certain historical controversy, you have to set your position according to what you think is right and not according to some irrelevant issue.”
In the past three weeks, Tekin has seen the pro-Israel group StandWithUs protesting outside his building and was visited by members of LA Jews for Peace, who came to his office to offer their condolences. But without a more official apology from Israel, and without a “transparent and international” investigation of what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara, “we cannot take any steps,” Tekin said. “If a confidence-building measure should be taken to improve Turkish-Israeli relations, that measure should be taken at this point by Israel.”