Does anger over Gaza threaten Turkey-Israel ties?

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Syria as part of a new foreign policy that seeks to strengthen ties with countries previously kept at an arm’s length.<br />
 (U.N. Photo)

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Syria as part of a new foreign policy that seeks to strengthen ties with countries previously kept at an arm’s length.
(U.N. Photo)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (JTA) — Turkey’s decision to indefinitely postpone a military exercise apparently due to Israel’s planned involvement is raising concerns that Turkish-Israeli ties have not recovered from the Gaza war last January.

The exercise — an air force program known as Anatolian Eagle — had been scheduled for this week and was supposed to include Israel along with the United States, Italy and other NATO countries. The other participating countries reportedly pulled out of the exercise after learning of Israel’s exclusion.

Turkey has tried to downplay the episode.

“It is not right to extract a political meaning and to make political conclusions out of the postponement of the exercises,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Privately, however, some Turkish government officials reportedly said that Israel’s participation was the reason for the cancellation.

Turkey and Israel have been close strategic allies since the late 1990s, and both countries are non-Arab in the overwhelmingly Arab Middle East. But relations between the two have cooled in recent years, particularly after Israel’s operation in Gaza last January.

Turkish government criticism of the operation was particularly harsh, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing Israel of "perpetrating inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction” and of committing a “crime against humanity.”

Some observers say the postponement of the military exercises may not be a new crisis but rather another indication that Turkey’s changing domestic and foreign policy considerations are leading to a redefinition of the country’s relationship with Israel.

“I think the timing has more to do with Turkey’s internal and foreign politics,” said Lale Kemal, a military analyst based in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. “We should bear in mind that the balance of power [in Turkey] is shifting toward the civilian authority. Despite the military’s plans for the exercise, which included Israel, the government asked them to exclude it.”

Turkey’s military, which traditionally has maintained a veto power over Turkish politics, has close ties with the Israeli military.

But Turkey’s Islamist press has strongly criticized Israel’s involvement in previous Turkish military exercises. Kemal said the party leading the government, the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was worried about the domestic fallout of including Israel in this year’s drill.

“Had it been up to the military, the exercise would have continued as planned, but the military can’t dictate its policies on the government the way it used to. The equation is changing,” Kemal said. “We see this in other areas and in the Turkish-Israeli relationship also. The military cannot dictate its positions all the time right now.”

When it comes to foreign policy, Turkey has actively sought to establish itself as a kind of regional soft power broker in recent years, working to strengthen relations with neighbors that it previously had kept at an arm’s length, notably Syria and Iran.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the main architect of this new foreign policy, and 10 other ministers visited Syria on Tuesday for the first meeting of a newly created Strategic Cooperation Council and to sign an agreement to eliminate visa requirements between the two countries.

The development reflects a fundamental shift away from the era when Turkey and Israel began developing their strategic relationship. At the time, the two countries looked at countries like Syria as a common threat; Turkey and Syria almost went to war in the late 1990s after Ankara accused Damascus of supporting the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

“Things have changed," said Ofra Bengio, an expert on Turkey at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. "In Davutoglu’s ideological framework, Israel doesn’t play a central role.”

Bengio said that keeping Israel out of the Anatolian Eagle military exercise also could be a response to Israel by Turkey’s foreign minister after learning that he would not be allowed to visit Gaza during a planned trip to Israel. Davutoglu canceled his Israel trip.

"I think Turkey is doing this to punish Israel for everything that has happened since Gaza, not because it might hurt its relations with Syria or Iran,” Bengio said. “The situation is starting to look more like a game of ping-pong.”

For now, it appears that officials in both countries are trying to keep the situation from unraveling further.

"Relations between Israel and Turkey are strategic and have been maintained for dozens of years," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at a closed meeting this week, according to a statement released by his press officer. "Despite all the ups and downs, Turkey continues to be a central player in our region. It is unsuitable to be drawn into criticizing it.”

Speaking to reporters Monday in Ankara, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Cemil Cicek, said, “We’re committed to our relationship with Israel. There should be no doubt about that.”

Kemal said that despite the recent ups and downs, the relationship with Israel remains important for Turkey, even if it’s not as strategically essential as it used to be.

In August, she noted, Israeli military forces participated along with Turkey and the United States in a maritime search-and-rescue exercise called Reliant Mermaid.

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