Behind the Headlines: Israeli-turkish Relations Solid Despite Political Crisis in Ankara

Israeli-Turkish relations are expected to remain solid, as a secularist government regained control this week over the powerful Muslim country.

Mesut Yilmaz was named prime minister Monday after he formed a coalition of his Motherland Party and two smaller parties.

Parliament is expected to approve later this month the coalition, which replaced an Islamic-led government that had ruled Turkey for nearly a year.

Israeli-Turkish military cooperation will continue, Avi Elpeleg, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, said in an interview. “Not because of special love for Israel, not because of ideology, but because of sheer interests.”

Common strategic interests, notably a shared concern about Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism, are at the heart of the two countries’ bond.

Under the government of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who resigned last month, Israeli-Turkish ties not only survived; the relationship actually grew significantly.

Erbakan, the first Islamic leader to rule modern Turkey, had long opposed his country’s close ties to the West, and sought to shift foreign policy priorities toward other Muslim countries in the region.

But he could not withstand the pressures of Turkey’s secularist military, which forced him to step down after less than a year in office.

A recent article in the Muslim press in Turkey claimed that Erbakan’s Welfare Party actually pushed Turkey toward a closer alliance with Israel, according to Amikam Nahmani of the Begin-Sadat Strategic Studies Institute at Bar-Ilan University.

Their attempts to pull Turkey away from Western Europe and the United States turned Israel into Turkey’s strongest ally, the article said.

It is generally believed, however, that the military’s potent influence in Turkish politics assured Ankara’s evolving ties to the Jewish state, relations that in the past year were sharply denounced by the Arab world.

As premier, Erbakan moderated his opposition to Turkey’s military pact with Israel, which was signed in February 1996, the first such agreement the Jewish state ever reached with an Islamic country.

Few details of the agreement have been revealed, except that it allowed each country to use the other’s air space for pilot training, reciprocal ship visits and sending delegations to military academies. Joint army and naval exercises were envisaged for the future.

Last August, Israel and Turkey signed a second military pact, an agreement for defense industry cooperation. Among other things, the accord allows Israel to modify Turkish Phantom jets.

Senior Turkish military officials, including Defense Minister Turhan Tayan and Chief of Staff Gen. Ismail Haki Karadai, visited Israel during Erbakan’s rule.

And Erbakan hosted Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy in April.

In addition to strengthened military relations, economic ties between the two countries have flourished. Trade jumped from $100 million in 1991 to $500 million last year, and is expected to reach a record $2 billion by the year 2000.

While Israeli-Turkish ties seem secure, the political scene in Ankara has been much less stable.

Erbakan submitted his resignation to President Suleyman Demirel, believing that he would ask the Islamic leader’s partner, Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller of the secularist True Path Party, to form a new coalition.

But Demirel assigned the job to Yilmaz, a former prime minister and bitter rival of both Ciller and Erbakan.

Formation of the new coalition led by Yilmaz squashed any hopes Erbakan held that early elections would be called — an understanding he and Ciller had if she had been asked to assemble a new government.

But there was widespread opposition to early elections because it is assumed that the Welfare Party would gain more than the 158 seats it holds in Parliament.

“I have no doubt that if elections take place now, the Islamists would win 30 percent of the votes,” said Nahmani of Bar-Ilan University.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s 26,000 Jews were quietly pleased with the latest political developments.

“Certainly there was a sigh of relief when Erbakan resigned,” said one observer. “But it was a very quiet sigh.”

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