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Last updated: July 27, 2010 6:04 pm
David Cameron, the UK prime minister, on Tuesday won plaudits in Ankara after attacking Israel for turning Gaza into a “prison camp” and hailing a “golden age” in Britain’s relations with Turkey, in spite of differences over Iran.
During a speech heaping praise on Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, Mr Cameron described Turkey as the European country with “the greatest chance of persuading Iran” to abandon is nuclear policy, even though Ankara voted against tougher sanctions, which have been backed by Britain.
The prime minister went on to defend his depiction of Gaza as a “prison camp”, in remarks that will be cheered in Turkey but test the patience of Israel.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, commended Mr Cameron’s honesty, and compared Israel’s attack on Turkish pro-Gaza activists to Somali piracy, saying the world should not be “silent spectators” to this “oppression”.
The Israeli embassy in London swiftly responded, saying that the people of Gaza were “prisoners of the terrorist organisation Hamas” and their situation “the direct result of Hamas’s rule and priorities”, adding that Mr Cameron would no doubt “share our grave concerns about our own prisoner in the Gaza Strip, Gilad Shalit”. Sergeant Shalit is a soldier held captive by militants in Gaza since June 2006.
While Britain has long been one of Turkey’s most active backers within the EU, Ankara’s increasingly assertive foreign policy has opened up a number of areas of disagreement, including over Gaza and Iran.
After a meeting with Mr Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, Mr Cameron dismissed the idea that Britain should be more open about its differences. “Sometimes there are differences in emphasis. But a good relationship can bear these differences of emphasis.”
Mr Erdogan said: “Turkey’s stance is clear. We do not own nuclear weapons. And we don’t want nuclear weapons in our region. It doesn’t matter who it is. We want a diplomatic solution.”
In his speech, Mr Cameron gently criticised Turkey’s attempt to broker a nuclear fuel-swap with Tehran, arguing that Iran would still retain about half of its low-enriched uranium. But he stressed the importance of Turkey and Brazil’s diplomatic efforts, which are to continue with a meeting in Istanbul.
Turning to the rift between Israel and Ankara over raid on a Gaza aid flotilla in which nine Turkish nationals were killed, Mr Cameron stopped short of backing Ankara’s demands for compensation and a full international inquiry.
However in his strongest language yet on the blockade on Gaza, Mr Cameron said: “Gaza can not and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.”
“I know that Gaza has led to real strains in Turkey’s relationship with Israel,” Mr Cameron added. “But Turkey is a friend of Israel and I urge Turkey – and Israel – not to give up on that friendship.”
When asked at a later press conference whether the comments would strain relations with Israel, Mr Cameron played down their significance, saying he merely repeated a statement he had already made in the House of Commons.
Additional reporting by Delphine Strauss
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