ANKARA, Turkey (JTA) – When Ehud Barak visited Turkey this week, aides to the Israeli defense minister – who is also a former prime minister and erstwhile military chief of staff – spoke of him as more of a “maintenance man.”
Barak took two days off from the growing Gaza Strip crisis to meet top Turkish leaders and attend to Israel’s most important alliance in the Middle East.
“It is hard to overestimate the significance of Turkey for us, its open support and all the various defense ties,” a senior Barak aide told JTA. “Were that to diminish or disappear one day, for whatever reason, Israel’s strategic situation would be massively compromised.”
While both sides describe ties between Israel and Turkey as robust, even intimate, regional realities challenge that relationship.
Israel’s mysterious airstrike in Syria last September, and the prospect of similar action against Iran’s nuclear facilities or a massive offensive to crush Hamas in Gaza, all trouble Turkey, a moderate Muslim state.
Israel, in turn, is watching the slow ascendancy of the Islamist movement in Ankara, where a secular military leadership traditionally has held sway.
In meetings with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, Barak took pains to praise his hosts as a force for good.
“Turkey is a great, moderate Muslim nation that knows how to radiate stability,” he said. “We hope it can bring its influence to bear.”
Barak aides said that during the closed-door discussions, the Turks voiced discomfort with Israel’s blockade of Gaza in response to cross-border rocket attacks on Sderot and other nearby towns. Israel, in turn, invited Turkey to fund Palestinian projects.
There was talk as well of the possibility of renewed Israel-Syria peace talks, which many Israeli and Western analysts say is key to drawing Damascus away from engagement with Hamas and Iran.
Barak, whose term as prime minister foundered in 2001 after whirlwind talks with Syria and the Palestinians failed, is widely considered to be keen on trying again with Syria while abandoning the effort with the Palestinians for now.
That puts him at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has pledged to make progress in reconciliation efforts with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and rebuffed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s demand for an Israeli commitment to return the Golan Heights to Syria before peace talks can resume.
A Barak aide said the defense minister and the Turks discussed “the challenges and the opportunities” vis-a-vis Syria, but the aide offered no further details.
Barak also reiterated an Israeli apology for the apparent violation of Turkish airspace during the Sept. 6, 2007 bombing run in northern Syria, which many international analysts believe may have targeted a nascent nuclear reactor.
Though the issue is not “an open wound” for Ankara, a senior Israeli defense official indicated it may have ruled out the use of Turkish territory for any future action of a similar nature.
“I don’t think it is relevant to think of Turkey as an actual, practicable platform for Israel,” the official said.
Ankara’s anger may have been mollified by the prospect of boosted defense ties with Israel, which could help the Turkish battle against Kurdish separatists.
Gonul thanked Barak in public for the Israeli sale of Heron surveillance drones to Turkey and said the two countries are in talks on an even more significant purchase: a spy satellite.
Should the sale of Israel’s Ofek satellite go through, it would double bilateral military trade, which currently stands at approximately $400 million annually.
“I think our defense cooperation is rich and of serious benefit to the Turks, and should therefore be expanded,” Barak said during his visit.