WASHINGTON - The Obama team was caught Wednesday between a rock and a hard place as it tried to navigate between key allies Israel and Turkey following an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish ship, analysts said.
U.S.-Turkish ties have already come under strain over Ankara's diplomacy with Iran and risk further friction over the deadly commando raid Monday on a Turkish-flagged ship carrying aid to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, analysts said.
The clash on the high seas Ã¢â‚¬â€ which came after Turkey backed the six-ship aid flotilla in defiance of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza Ã¢â‚¬â€ points up Turkey's growing bid to set its own course in the Middle East, they added.
Unlike the harsh denunciations of Israel from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Barack Obama declined Tuesday to condemn the Jewish state, but he did reach out to Turkey.
The president spoke to Erdogan to express "deep condolences" over the deaths on board the ship Ã¢â‚¬â€ four of the nine dead were Turks Ã¢â‚¬â€ and to say Washington was working with Israel on the release of impounded vessels and passengers.
A senior U.S. State Department official sought to stress that the two-hour meeting in Washington on Tuesday between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was a good one between allies.
"It was not an acrimonious meeting at all," the official said on the condition of anonymity when queried by reporters.
"The foreign minister and the secretary both reflected on the fact that we are clearly friends of Turkey, we're friends of Israel and we will approach this as close allies and friends," he added.
However, analyst Steven Cook said, "when it comes down to it, we are going to fall closer to the Israelis than to the Turks on a variety of issues.
"And the biggest difference has really been on Hamas," the analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) told AFP.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul this month said Hamas should not be excluded from the peace process as he stressed the need to reunite the Palestinians Ã¢â‚¬â€ divided between the U.S.-backed Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.
However, the United States and its international partners demand Hamas first recognize Israel's right to exist, forsake violence against the Jewish state, and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
"The Turks have become competitors of Washington in places in the Middle East," he said.
Turkey Ã¢â‚¬â€ along with Brazil Ã¢â‚¬â€ has also been in a deepening confrontation with the United States over Washington's dismissal of a nuclear swap deal the two hammered out with Iran on May 17.
Cook said Turkey and the United States also share differences in their approaches to Syria, which supports Hamas and the Lebanese radical movement Hezbollah.
"There are changes in the world that have happened ( . . . and) the Turks are calculating their interests differently from the way we are," he said.
The Turks see themselves playing "an increasingly influential role and they are not necessarily willing to adhere to the rules of the road that we have established," Cook said.
"They are willing to bend them or break them in some cases," he added.
Analyst Marina Ottaway said "the most delicate issue is how" the raid will affect U.S.-Turkish relations as the two countries look at their interests in the Middle East differently.
Their ties are "at a critical juncture because Turkey was offended by Washington's off-hand dismissal of the nuclear fuel agreement with Iran negotiated by Turkey and Brazil," she said in a Carnegie analysis.
"Relations will only worsen if the U.S. reaction to (Monday's) incident leads Turkey to conclude that the United States condones Israeli actions. Washington must think carefully about the long-term implications of its response," she said.