Israeli Foreign Minister Visits Turkey in Effort to Better Ties

Foreign Minister David Levy made a two-day visit to Turkey this week in an effort to strengthen ties with the predominantly Muslim country.

His visit, which began Tuesday, comes a week after the Turkish Parliament ratified a free-trade agreement with Israel.

Turkish President Suleyman Demirel this week approved the pact, which goes into effect May 1.

Turkey’s secularist generals seek closer ties with the Jewish state, a move resisted by Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who grudgingly agreed to meet with Levy.

During the meeting, Erbakan called on Israel to stop its construction activities in Jerusalem and the territories, adding that Israel should withdraw from “land it has occupied for years.”

The highly critical Erbakan also stressed that Jerusalem is holy not only for Jews, but for Muslims and Christians as well, and that the Muslims need to be sure that their holy sites in the city are protected.

Levy impassively responded that Israel had given Jerusalem’s holy sites the best protection they ever had.

He added that construction in Jerusalem was Israel’s sovereign right and did not violate any agreements.

Tuesday’s talks marked the first time that Turkey’s Islamist prime minister met with an Israel political leader.

A strong critic of Israel, Erbakan has until now refused to respond to messages sent by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and only conveyed his agreement to meet with Levy at the last minute.

Despite their political differences, both Israel and Turkey have expressed interest in deepening cooperation in other realms.

The Turkish army chief of staff has expressed interest in a proposal for joint naval maneuvers with Israel and the United States.

Such exercises, which are expected to be finalized later this month, would be another step in tightening military cooperation between the sides.

Under a defense pact signed by the two countries last year, Israeli planes have carried out exercises from Turkish military air bases, senior military officials have visited each other’s countries and Israel has begun modifying Phantom jet fighters for the Turkish air force.

Levy’s visit to Turkey came as international criticism increased against Israel for its recent decision to build a new Jewish neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem, a move that has prompted three weeks of violent Palestinian protests.

At a meeting Tuesday in New Delhi, foreign ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement called on members to freeze diplomatic ties with Israel. The group, made up of developing nations, issued the call soon after the Arab League’s similar recommendation.

The foreign ministers also called for an urgent session of the U.N. General Assembly to discuss what they described as Israel’s violations of U.N. resolutions.

In a separate development, the Persian Gulf state of Oman this week confirmed that it had denied entry visas to two Israeli diplomats, a move that Omani officials said came as a result of the Arab League recommendation.

Oman also has barred Israeli participation at a communications exhibition in the capital of Muscat.

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