Behind the Headlines: Turkey’s Islamist Premier Shifts Attitude Toward Ties with Israel

At first, Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan had no desire at all to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy.

As far as the Islamist premier was concerned, why bother with a representative of the country he has often described as “a cancer in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world?”

But Erbakan came under pressure from Turkey’s secularist army generals, who seek closer ties with the Jewish state, and eventually — albeit grudgingly – - he met with Levy for 50 minutes last week in the Turkish capital of Ankara.

“Relations between Israel and Turkey have never been as good,” said Turkish journalist Sam Cohen in a telephone interview from his Istanbul office. “And even Erbakan cannot change that.”

The April 8 meeting marked the first time that Erbakan had a face-to-face session with an Israeli political leader.

A strong critic of Israel, Erbakan has until now refused to respond to messages sent by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the runup to the meeting, Erbakan faced strong conflicting pressures within his country.

On the one hand, the army tells him that cooperation with Israel is a top Turkish interest. And the army has the influence to command Erbakan’s attention.

At the same time, fundamentalists within his Islamic Welfare Party have been exerting pressure on him to sever relations with Israel.

Barring a drastic escalation of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, said Cohen, Erbakan will not be able to do so because Turkey’s strategic interests are at stake.

At first, Erbakan was decidedly frosty during his meeting with Levy.

He led his Israeli guest to a seat to his right, stared at an imaginary point in the air and began talking about Israel’s need to respect Palestinian rights and to withdraw from the territories.

He also warned against Israeli plans to “demolish the Al-Aksa Mosque” in Jerusalem, as if he really believed the worst of the Islamic fundamentalists’ anti-Israel propaganda.

Levy impassively responded that Israel had been careful to preserve the holy sites of all religions. He added that Jerusalem had never been the capital of any people other than the Jews.

Despite the chilly start to the session, the atmosphere slowly thawed, particularly after journalists left the room, according to participants at the meeting.

Gradually, Erbakan was smiling and talking about the countries’ growing economic ties.

But he did not the mention the strongest element binding the two countries — a common strategic interest.

“The two countries have a common enemy: Syria,” said Amikam Nahmani of Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Institute for Strategic Studies.

Turkey regards Syria as an adversary primarily because of Damascus’ support for Kurdish rebels seeking self-rule in southeastern Turkey.

Water disputes also have been a source of tensions between Ankara and Damascus.

“Turkey was quite unhappy at the time when negotiations between Israel and Syria seemed to be heading toward an agreement,” Nahmani said in an interview.

“Turkey feared that if the Syrians removed their troops from the Golan Heights, the troops might be deployed along the Turkish border.

“Turkey was equally unhappy about the possibility that as a result of an agreement with Israel, Syria would be struck off” the U.S. State Department list of countries supporting terrorism, he said.

Levy’s visit last week to Turkey brought to light one of the more interesting phenomena in today’s Middle East.

At a time when the Arab world is united against Israel because of the crisis in the peace process with the Palestinians, the strongest Muslim power in the region is seeking enhanced military cooperation with Israel.

As a result of 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.

Bilateral economic ties have also prospered: The volume of trade between the two countries jumped from an annual $100 million in 1991 to $500 million last year — and it is expected to reach $2 billion by the year 2000.

In an effort to boost trade with Israel, the Turkish Parliament ratified a free-trade agreement with the Jewish state only days before Levy met with Erbakan.

Three years ago, relations between the two countries were considered a function of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But now, “the Turks view the relations with Israel as a totally separate sphere from the ups and downs of the peace process,” a senior Israeli official said in an interview.

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