ANKARA, Turkey, March 10 (JTA) — What a difference two years make. In the summer of 1996, Israel — and Jews around the world — were worried about Turkey. The first Islamic-led government in modern Turkey’s history had just taken power — and the new prime minister, Necmettin Erbekan, wanted to strengthen Turkey’s ties with the fundamentalist Islamic world and was questioning relations with the West. Now, as relations between Turkey and Israel continue to warm — as evidenced by the joint military exercises the two countries held with the United States in November and an agreement for Israel to upgrade Turkish military aircraft — it is Arab and Muslim countries that are worried. More evidence of this turnaround was provided in Ankara last week, when a 50- member delegation representing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited the former center of the Ottoman Empire. Turkish outreach to American Jewish organizations is not new. Officials here have long sought U.S. Jewish help in making their case in Washington. Jewish groups, in turn, frequently visit Turkey and meet with visiting Turkish officials in the United States. In this most recent encounter, top Turkish generals, led by the deputy chief of staff, Cevic Bir, laid out the red carpet. Premier Mesut Yilmaz took time out to host the guests for lunch, Deputy Premier Bulent Ecevit delivered a lecture and the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Mark Parris, gave a reception in their honor. “This group of Americans came to Turkey to show our support and to express our content with the continued cooperation between the three countries,” Melvin Salberg, chairman of the Conference of Presidents, told a group of Turkish army generals, as the delegation visited army headquarters in the Turkish capital. Members of the Conference of Presidents made the four-day trip on their way home after their annual mission to Israel. Each side, of course, had its own agenda. The American Jews wanted to encourage the Turkish-Israeli alliance. The Turks, for their part, wanted to use the good services of the Jewish leaders to pave the road straight to the heart of Washington. “Turkey and the USA have been allies for many years,” Premier Yilmaz told the delegation. “We wish to further develop these relations,” he said, but added, “Our relations have had their sour points, mainly due to anti-Turkish lobbies.” And then he came to the point, using subtle language: “We think your assistance to work against these lobbies is important.” Yilmaz had actually asked the Jewish leaders to intervene on Turkey’s behalf in Washington against the strong pro-Greek lobby. Relations between Turkey and Greece, always tense, have deteriorated during the past year over the ever- present issue of Cyprus, the island in the Mediterranean that is one of the centers of dispute between the two countries — as well as over Turkey’s failure to be admitted to the European Union. Turkey, a member of NATO, has long resented its exclusion from the E.U. Yilmaz’s plea put the American Jews in an embarrassing situation. On one hand, they want to serve as ambassadors of goodwill for Turkey in Washington. On the other hand, they do not want to take sides in the longtime conflict between Turkey and Greece. “I can understand the feelings of the prime minister about the strength of the Greek lobby,” Salberg said in an interview, “but obviously we cannot take sides.” The Conference of Presidents’ visit to Turkey had been planned way in advance, but its timing could not have been more appropriate. The Jewish leaders laid a wreath at the tomb of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey’s modern, secular state, just weeks after Turkey banned the Islamic Rafah Party and as Yilmaz’s ruling Motherland Party is struggling to preserve its shaky minority coalition. The Jewish delegation had the opportunity to see the tensions in contemporary Turkey. During the visit, Turkish television carried reports on violent clashes between workers and police; only a few yards from their hotels, and hundreds marched in a protest against the government on Sunday, International Women’s Day; and veiled women and pious-looking bearded men were evident on the street. It is in this context that the Turkish leadership — and the army in particular — views the warming relations with Israel. As Bir, the deputy chief of staff, put it: “Turkey and Israel are the only democracies in the region. We face the threat of radical Islam to dominate the area. In this respect, the interests of Turkey and Israel meet.” The executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, Malcolm Hoenlein, agrees. “We have to encourage Turkey because it can serve as a model for the Islamic states in the Caucasus and Central Asia, so that they can see that the West will stay with them if they go the right way,” Hoenlein said.
SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING