ANKARA, Turkey —Secretary of State John F. Kerry scolded Turkey’s leader Friday for likening Zionism to a “crime against humanity,” saying such remarks complicate efforts to forge Mideast peace.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comment has widened his country’s rift with Israel, with which the moderate Muslim-majority nation once had cordial relations. It also forced Kerry to publicly chastise an important ally straddling the Middle East and Europe.
“Obviously, we not only disagree,” Kerry told reporters, “we found it objectionable.” He said that efforts to promote tolerance and peace would become “more complicated in the aftermath of a speech such as the one we heard.’’
Erdogan had told the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations meeting in Vienna on Wednesday: “Just as with Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it has become necessary to view Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the reference to Zionism as a “dark and mendacious statement, the likes of which we thought had passed from the world.”
The tensions with Erdogan marked the second sour note in as many days for Kerry, whose first foreign trip has been dominated by the growing crisis in Syria, which borders Turkey. The growing strains between Turkey and Israel have dismayed U.S. officials who had hoped that Turkey might be a democratic example for Arab states and a go-between in disputes with the West.
Zionism is a form of Jewish nationalism that began in the 19th century with support for the creation of a Jewish state. While the movement arose in part as a response to anti-Semitism, some critics have adopted the term to denounce Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.
Erdogan is a vocal Islamist, a departure from Turkey’s history of firmly secular democratic rule. He often appears to play to anti-Israeli sentiment among the
majority-Muslim Turks, and U.S. leaders of both political parties have found him touchy and unpredictable.
For his part, Erdogan has found the United States less cooperative than he hoped in ending the two-year-old conflict in Syria.
Turkey is the first Muslim country Kerry has visited as secretary, but the visit played out awkardly. Before meeting with the Turkish leader, Kerry said that the death of a Turkish security guard last month in an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara served as reminder that it is important “to promote a spirit of tolerance.’’
“And that includes all of the public statements made by all leaders,” Kerry said. He said he would raise the matter directly with Erdogan.
The meeting itself began with the sometimes irascible Turkish leader noting coldly that Kerry was late. Kerry apologized, and added that he had just finished a productive meeting with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
“You must have spoken about everything, so there is nothing left for us to talk about,” Erdogan replied through a translator.
He did not smile when Kerry tried to lighten the mood.
Israeli forces killed nine Turks in 2010 during the storming of a Palestinian aid ship that tried to break through an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
“We have never been hostile against a nation, against a state, against an individual,” Davutoglu said after his meetings with Kerry. “However, if we need to speak about a very hostile practice, I would refer you to the killing of nine civilians on open waters.”
The United States is one of three NATO nations that have deployed Patriot missile interceptors along Turkey’s 550-mile border with Syria. Erdogan had asked for the support but wanted more — a sentiment not unlike that voiced this week by a U.S.-backed Syrian opposition leader who angrily demanded of Kerry more help than the visiting secretary of state has offered.
Erdogan also has advocated a buffer zone to protect refugees inside Syria, something the United States rejected as unworkable. Turkey has taken in more than 200,000 Syrian refugees during a two-year civil war that has killed some 70,000 people.
Kerry heads next to Egypt, arriving at a time of prolonged political instability that could blunt Egypt’s traditional power as a Mideast peace broker.
Tensions between the Islamist backers of President Mohamed Morsi and a broad but disorganized liberal opposition have periodically spiraled into days of protests and violent street clashes. Popular frustration with rising inflation and joblessness, growing insecurity, and a lack of accountability and justice have also fueled violent clashes between protesters and police in recent weeks and have added to the growing force of Morsi’s opposition.
Two of Egypt’s top opposition leaders turned down invitations to meet with Kerry during his visit, local news media reported. The National Salvation Front, headed by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, cited “blatant American interference in Egypt’s internal affairs” in rejecting a meeting, the state-run al-Ahram newspaper reported Thursday.
Egyptian liberal and leftist opposition leaders have grown increasingly critical of the United States since Morsi won Egypt’s first democratic presidential election last summer. His rivals have accused Washington of supporting Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which the opposition says have ignored alternate political voices in a drive to dominate Egypt’s government institutions.
Abigail Hauslohner in Cairo contributed to this report.