ISTANBUL (Apr. 15)
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom’s day trip to Turkey was described as a getting-to-know-you visit with his Turkish counterpart.
But analysts in both countries say Shalom’s visit, coming on the heels of his first trip to Washington since taking office, also shows increased importance of the Israel-Turkey relationship as the U.S.-led war in Iraq winds down.
Since Israel formalized relations with predominantly Muslim Turkey close to a decade ago, both countries have benefited from the tie.
For Israel, increased ties with Turkey have provided the Jewish state with a powerful strategic partner in the region and with an emerging market for Israeli industry.
“After the United States, Turkey is Israel’s “most important and intimate strategic partner,” said Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.
For Turkey, the relationship with Israel has provided it with access to Israeli military technology and a connection to the American Jewish community, which has been instrumental in lobbying on Turkey’s behalf in Washington and has helped Turkey fend off the Greek and Armenian lobbies.
Shalom’s trip marks the first high-level Israeli visit to Turkey since November’s election of the Justice and Development Party, whose roots are in a banned Islamist party.
“Israel and Turkey as democracies in this region have common values and face common challenges,” Shalom said on arrival in Ankara. “We attach great importance to the dialogue that we have with Turkey.”
Inbar said Shalom’s visit was designed to signal that despite the events of recent weeks, it is still “business as usual” between Israel and Turkey.
“We also wanted to assure them about the issue of the Kurdish state, that we support the territorial integrity of Iraq. This is a very sensitive issue for Turkey,” Inbar added.
Turkey fears any move toward independence by Kurds in northern Iraq could set a precedent for its own sizable Kurdish population. This concern has led Turkey recently to increase discussions with Syria and Iran, which also have significant Kurdish minorities.
The discussions caused concern in some circles in Israel and may also have prompted Shalom’s visit, Inbar said.
In fact, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul was supposed to visit Syria just before Shalom’s visit, though he canceled after it became clear that it would be politically unwise to visit Syria when tensions between Washington and Damascus are rising.
“Syria and Iran are our neighbors, and we are exerting efforts to keep our relations with the neighbors at the highest level,” Gul said after his meeting with Shalom in Ankara. “Everybody, including Israel, will serve to provide stability in the region.”
The potential diplomatic fallout Turkey could have suffered from its contacts with Syria and Iran may also have motivated the meeting with Shalom, one Turkish analyst said.
“This is a far riskier thing for this government than any contact with Syria and Iran. Many Turks feel this was a war fought on behalf of Israel to decimate the only regime that could pose a threat to it,” said Soli Ozel, a foreign policy expert at Istanbul Bilgi University.
“For the government’s domestic audience it was a risky move, but in terms of neutralizing any ill will from the contacts with Syria and Iran, it made sense,” Ozel said.
Inbar said the meeting with Shalom also helped Turkey rebuild its relationship with the United States. That relationship frayed when the Turkish Parliament failed to approve a motion in March that would have allowed the United States to station troops in Turkey and open a northern front against Iraq.
“We are their bridge to the United States. They may be looking at Israel and the Jewish lobby as one of the ways to reduce the tension with the United States,” Inbar said.
Meanwhile, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official described the meetings as a success.
“It was a significant meeting because they have a new government and so do we,” the official said. “The atmosphere was open and warm. A good connection was created.”