John Kerry: Turkish prime minister's Zionism remarks "objectionable"

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leans over to clasp Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's hand at the end of a news conference at Ankara Palace in Ankara, Turkey, March 1, 2013. AP Photo

Updated at 6:45 p.m. ET

ANKARA, Turkey U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday waded into the controversy over comments by Turkey's prime minister equating Zionism to a crime against humanity, rebuking the leader of the NATO ally by saying such remarks complicate efforts to find peace in the Middle East.

Kerry said the Obama administration found the statements by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan "objectionable" and he stressed the "urgent need to promote a spirit of tolerance, and that includes all of the public statements made by all leaders" at a news conference in Ankara with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

"We not only disagree with it; we found it objectionable," Kerry said. He added that he had raised the issue with Davutoglu "very directly."

Davutoglu, however, gave no acknowledgement of the U.S. complaint and denied that any Turkish official had made hostile or offensive comments about Israel. Instead, he blamed Israel for acting in a hostile way toward Turkey. He repeatedly referred to the deaths of nine civilians at the hands of Israeli commandos aboard a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship in 2010.

"If Israel wants to hear positive statements from Turkey, it needs to review its attitude," he said. "It needs to review its attitude toward us, and it needs to review its attitude toward the people in the region and especially the West Bank settlements issue."

"If a country violates openly and clearly the right to live of our own people, we will always preserve the right to come up with statements, come up with remarks," Davatoglu told reporters.

CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan, who is traveling with the secretary, reports that the war of words between Turkey and Israel presented Kerry with his first potentially public confrontation on his inaugural trip abroad as America's chief diplomat.

A U.S. official briefing the press aboard the secretary of state's plane called the Zionism comments by Erdogan "corrosive" to the U.S.-Turkish relationship, Brennan reports. Those strong words generated headlines as soon as Kerry's plane landed in Ankara. Hours later he met face to face with Erdogan late in the day on Friday for the first time since becoming secretary of state.

Kerry exercised his diplomatic muscle in public with restrained condemnation but said that behind closed doors his conversation was frank, Brennan reports. Standing next to Davatoglu at the presser, Kerry was restrained by firmly referring to "the differences of opinions about words and about their impact."

It is not yet clear whether the public addressing of the issue will quiet Israeli concerns or will create an uncomfortable moment for the U.S. as President Obama plans his first trip to Israel later this month.

Addressing the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations conference in Vienna this week, Erdogan complained of prejudices against Muslims. He said Islamophobia should be considered a crime against humanity "just like Zionism, like anti-Semitism and like fascism."

The White House rejected the comparison on Thursday, calling it "offensive and wrong."

Kerry said he believes there is a way to repair the damage, but he added: "It obviously gets more complicated in the aftermath of a speech such as the one we heard in Vienna."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also sharply condemned the remark late Thursday, calling it a "dark and mendacious statement, the likes of which we thought had passed from the world." U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon joined the critics, saying it was "unfortunate that such hurtful and divisive comments were uttered at a meeting being held under the theme of responsible leadership."

Although he did not back down from the Erdogan remarks, Davutoglu did say that Turkey was a strong proponent of the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians and would do whatever it could to help achieve that.

Kerry said that despite the comments, he was hopeful Turkey and Israel could eventually find a way to restore their previously close relations.

The uproar has overshadowed Kerry's previously planned visit to the Turkish capital, where he had hoped to spend much of his time discussing the crisis in neighboring Syria and coordinating plans with the Turks to assist the Syrian opposition, which is fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.

The deterioration of Turkish-Israel relations has been a matter of deep worry for the U.S., which has unsuccessfully sought to push the two countries to get back on friendly terms.

Turkey and Israel were once important allies, but relations deteriorated sharply after the 2010 raid.

Turkey is a co-sponsor, along with Spain, of the U.N. initiative to promote tolerance and understanding between various religions.

Turkey's state-run news agency, Anadolu, reported Erdogan's remarks on Wednesday but removed the reference to "Zionism" in a correction sent out an hour later. It said the correction was "made by the source" but gave no other explanation.

Erdogan, whose ruling party has roots in Turkey's Islamic movement, frequently criticizes Israeli actions against Palestinians but rarely speaks out against Zionism. In November, he accused Israel of state terrorism and of an "attempt at ethnic cleansing," a euphemism that describes using violence to force a population to flee an area.

Kerry was in NATO ally Turkey on the fourth leg of a nine-nation dash through Europe and the Middle East that was his first official overseas trip as secretary of state. Kerry spent much of his time at his first three stops — Britain, Germany and Italy — focusing on the conflict in Syria.

Kerry's first stop in Ankara on Friday was the U.S. Embassy, where he spoke at a memorial service for a local Turkish security guard who was killed in a Feb. 1 suicide attack at the embassy gates. Kerry presented the man's family with an award for heroism.

From Turkey, Kerry will travel to Egypt on Saturday, followed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar before returning to Washington in the middle of next week.

Police, meanwhile, used tear gas to disperse a group of about 30 people who tried to break through police barricades and march toward Erdogan's office during an anti-U.S. protest.

Kerry was not near the area at the time of the protest.

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