Turkey and Israel: Splitsville?

ISTANBUL, May 20 (JTA) — Is Israel’s relationship with Turkey on the skids? Such fears came to the fore when a Lebanese newspaper, quoting sources in Ankara, reported recently that Turkey was freezing future military contracts with Israeli firms. According to the paper, the step was decided on by Turkey’s Islamic-oriented government, which rejects strategic military cooperation with Israel. Turkish officials were quick to deny the claim, noting that a decision to cancel bids for weapons systems, in which Israel was competing, was part of an effort to boost local production and increase cooperation with European firms as Turkey fights for a place in the European Union. Israeli officials also denied that relations had deteriorated, noting a cordial exchange between the two countries’ foreign ministers at a recent conference in Dublin. Despite the assurances, however, all is not necessarily well in the alliance between the two regional powers. “For several weeks now we have seen the Turkish attitude become cooler towards Israel, particularly because of the policies of” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Sami Kohen, a veteran columnist with the Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet. “We were in a period of warm relations. Now it’s cooling off,” he said, citing the assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March as a turning point. Turkey currently is ruled by the Justice and Development Party, known by the acronym AKP, a socially conservative party led by veterans of Turkey’s political Islam movement. While Turkey says it maintains a “balanced” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the country’s prime minister and AKP leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been harshly critical of Israeli actions against the Palestinians. Israeli officials complain that Erdogan and his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, have yet to visit Israel, while Sharon’s requests to visit Turkey have been rebuffed. Cengiz Candar, a Turkish political analyst, said he didn’t expect high-level visits of that sort anytime soon. “The ruling party doesn’t have positive sentiments for Israel,” Candar said. “They have taken the relationship as a fact of life, but they have no intention of nourishing the relationship.” During the AKP’s almost two years in power, Turkey has vigorously pursued efforts to join the European Union, passing a number of human rights reforms and liberalization laws. At the same time, Ankara has been working to improve strained relations with its Arab neighbors and other countries in the Islamic world. For example, relations with Syria have warmed up significantly in the past year, after the two countries almost went to war in the late 1990s because of Syrian support for the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which was waging a guerilla war in southeastern Turkey. Last January, Syrian President Bashar Assad came to Turkey for a three-day visit, the first by a Syrian head of state. Assad reportedly asked Turkey to act as a mediator with Israel, an offer that Sharon rejected because of Syria’s continuing support for Hezbollah and several Palestinian terrorist organizations. Kohen and other Turkish analysts say Erdogan saw Sharon’s refusal as an indication of an unwillingness to cooperate on peace efforts. Israeli officials said they thought Syria merely was trying to evade U.S. pressure to end its support for terrorism and wasn’t serious about restarting peace talks that had been abandoned in 2000. “I think at this point, when Turkey is opening up to the Arab world, to the Islamic world and also to Europe, where there is such a wide consensus criticizing the Sharon government, Turkey doesn’t want to seem like it alone is supporting him,” Kohen said. The relationship between Turkey and Israel began to warm up in the early 1990s, when the two countries signed military cooperation agreements. Though it predominantly is Muslim, Turkey at the time was isolated in the Middle East and faced ongoing conflicts with several of its neighbors and with the PKK. At the time, the alliance with Israel — also isolated in the region — made sense politically and militarily. But with several of its conflicts now resolved and as relations with its neighbors improve, Turkey may no longer consider its relationship with Israel as important as before, Candar said. “Circumstances are different now, 180 degrees different. It’s not all dependent now on the image of a Turkish-Israeli axis in the Middle East,” he said. Israeli officials point out that the two countries have moved beyond purely military relations to forge strong trade and tourism links. Still, for Israel, the relationship with Turkey remains a significant strategic asset. Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said Turkey and Israel still have shared regional interests, such as the threat of Islamic extremism and concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. That should keep any cooling of relations from leading to a complete break, he said. “Turkey is still in the Middle East and they still have to worry about some of the same things that Israel has to worry about, and it needs allies like Israel,” Inbar said.

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