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Israel’s New Envoy in Turkey Tries to Mend Ties Amid Strains

“The Chinese say that if you want to curse someone, tell them to live in interesting times,” Israel’s new ambassador to Turkey, Pinchas Avivi, says with a smile. “It seems like that curse has worked on me.” The affable Avivi may be understating the case.

A 37-year veteran of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Avivi came to Turkey last October to take over what is considered one of Israel’s most significant diplomatic postings.

Avivi had barely settled into his office when two Istanbul synagogues were hit by devastating, near-simultaneous suicide bombings. The synagogue attacks, which took place just six weeks after Avivi’s arrival, killed six Istanbul Jews and injured dozens of others. They led to a flurry of visits to Turkey by Israeli officials as a sign of solidarity with Turkey’s Jews.

In recent weeks, the challenges Avivi has faced have been diplomatic.

While Israel and Turkey have enjoyed warm ties since the early 1990s! , evinced by increased military cooperation and deepening commercial ties, some strains have started to appear in the relationship.

Israel’s recent military operations in the Gaza Strip were met with severe criticism by the Turkish government, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on several occasions referring to the actions as “state terror.” In an interview with Ha’aretz, Erdogan said Israel was treating the Palestinians the way Jews were treated 500 years ago in Spain, during the time of the Inquisition.

Last week, Turkey recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv and its consul general in Jerusalem for one-day “consultations” in Ankara. Turkish and Israeli officials downplayed the significance of the move, but the timing of the recall raised the question of whether Ankara is trying to send a message to the Israeli government.

So Avivi, a 14th-generation Jerusalemite who previously had been an ambassador to Columbia and Chile, has spent the last few weeks trying! to dampen the diplomatic brush fires that have been ignited by the in creasingly fiery rhetoric coming out of Ankara, particularly from Erdogan.

As part of that effort, Avivi has been meeting with lawmakers, government officials and members of the media.

“We’ve been trying to make clear to the Turks that we still support the ‘road map’ ” peace plan, Avivi said during a recent interview at the Israeli Embassy in Ankara. “We explained to them our thinking behind the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.”

“I think at the professional level of the government offices, people understand Israel’s position, and I think in the wider sense people in Turkey understand that the essence of the relationship is important for both countries,” he added. “I think both Israel and Turkey agree that we can argue about everything except the relationship itself, because that relationship is based on very deep, mutual interests that still haven’t changed, even in these past weeks.”

Over the last decade, Turkey has emerged as a key strategic ally for Israel -! – and its best friend in the Middle East. Israel and Turkey are the only democracies in the region, and both countries face a common threat from radical Islam.

The two countries have developed close military and strategic ties, and trade between Israel and Turkey has grown tenfold in the last decade, to $1.2 billion last year from about $120 million a decade ago.

That’s partly why, Avivi says, he was surprised by the harshness of the criticism being directed at Israel by Erdogan.

“Criticism is legitimate between friends, but the wording was not appropriate,” he said. “We are definitely getting a lot of reassuring messages, but there is concern that the damage that was done from what was said publicly is a wound that doesn’t heal in a day, and we have to somehow take that into consideration.”

The Turkish government currently is led by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, which traces its roots to Turkey’s political Islamist movement. Today, the! party describes itself as socially conservative, rather than Islamist , but Erdogan’s recent criticism of Israel had some wondering whether the AKP is beginning to show an ideological bias against Israel.

Avivi says he doesn’t see ideology behind the government’s recent actions and statements.

When the AKP first came into power almost two years ago, relations with Israel actually were improving. Avivi says he believes that the AKP government is not interested in downgrading its relations with Israel.

“I think even this party recognizes the importance of the relationship with Israel, and we have a continuous dialogue with them,” Avivi said, sipping Turkish coffee.

Avivi points out that in the midst of the controversy over Erdogan’s criticism of the Israeli government, Yosef Paritzky, Israel’s national infrastructure minister, came to Turkey to preside over the signing of an $800 million deal for the construction of three power plants in Israel by a Turkish firm. The agreement was seen as a significant step in deepening the two cou! ntries’ commercial ties and as a boost for Turkey’s economy.

Avivi says the energy deal is a good indicator of the state of Israel-Turkey ties. While the alliance between the two countries started as a strategic one, it now has diversified to the point where it is less susceptible to shifting political winds, he said.

“It’s important to emphasize that Israel made a very important decision to do all it can to deepen the civil aspect of our relations, because we believe that over time this will lead to truly deep connections,” Avivi said. “These are connections that don’t change with governments or with geopolitical considerations.”

For example, Israel is bidding on some $600 million in industrial and agricultural development projects connected with a large-scale irrigation scheme in Turkey’s southeast. Israel also is looking into the possibility of building a massive underwater pipeline that would carry natural gas, oil, water and electricity from Turkey to Israel! , according to Avivi, creating a corridor that would link Israel to Eu rope’s energy grid via Turkey.

For the time being, patching up the Turkey-Israel relationship tops Avivi’s agenda.

“I wouldn’t say that the relations right now are on calm waters,” Avivi said. “That means we need to sit and figure out what’s happening and how to deal with it. We are definitely in a process today of thinking about it. When friends get such a severe criticism, you have to think about it.”

Observers in Turkey say more diplomatic quarrels could be in the offing.

“I think the Palestinian issue was always a topic of debate between the two countries, but because of the peace process moving along, especially during the Clinton years, it did not come up,” said Erdal Guven, a columnist with the Turkish daily Radikal. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel “Sharon has not made it easy for Prime Minister Erdogan to stay quiet. It hasn’t helped Turkey keep an equilibrium, a balance, vis-a-vis the Arab countries.”

A senior member of the AKP said, “This government i! s no different from previous governments in its relationship with Israel. Turkey doesn’t want to reconsider its relationship with Israel, but at the same time, recent attacks” on Palestinians “by the government of Israel makes the Turkish government’s position a lot more difficult.”

The Turkish government appears to be trying to flex some diplomatic muscle on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

In addition to recalling its diplomats, Turkey also announced recently that it is appointing Vehbi Dincerler, a former education minister, to be a special coordinator for relations with the Palestinians. The Turkish Parliament also sent a team of observers to monitor the sentencing of Palestinian Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who was given a 165-year prison sentence last week by Tel Aviv District Court for his role in five Israeli deaths resulting from terrorist attacks.

“There’s a two-track policy: strengthening relations with Israel, but also strengthening our ties with the Pa! lestinians,” said Sami Kohen, a columnist with the Turkish daily Milli yet. “It’s a question now of showing more sympathy for the Palestinians. It’s important for whoever is in office here to show that sympathy.”

With all the diplomatic wrangling, it seems that only one thing is certain for Avivi: He will continue to live in interesting times.

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