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Victorious Islamic Party Promises to Respect Turkey’s Ties with Israel

November 20, 2002
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The landslide victory of a party with Islamic roots in Turkey’s recent parliamentary elections would seem to spell trouble for the country’s growing business and military relationship with Israel.

But leaders of the winning party insist there will be no change in Israel policy under their government, and Turkish political analysts and observers say the bilateral relationship will continue to grow.

The Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, won the election with 34 percent of the vote and most likely will form Turkey’s first single-party government in 15 years. The party was founded a year ago by members of the reformist wing of a banned Islamic party.

The party is led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a popular former mayor of Istanbul who is prohibited from holding office due to a 1999 conviction for anti-secular activities. AKP has chosen Abdullah Gul, a moderate who until recently was the party’s spokesman, to serve as prime minister.

Israel and the Middle East did not figure prominently in the election campaign, which was dominated by domestic economic issues and the question of Turkey’s bid for E.U. membership.

But the relationship between Israel and Turkey is an important policy issue for both countries, especially since the strategic and economic connections between the two regional powers have deepened significantly during the last five years.

Bilateral trade now stands at around $1 billion a year, with Israeli tourism to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast growing rapidly.

Among the major military agreements signed recent is a $780 million deal for Israel to upgrade Turkish M-60 tanks. The two countries also are negotiating a 20-year deal, valued at $20 million to $50 million, for Israel to buy fresh water from Turkey and have it shipped to Israel by large tankers.

In an interview with the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, Erdogan said Turkey’s ties with Israel would be maintained.

“Turkey will continue its ties with Israel on the basis of the common interests of both sides,” Erdogan said.

According to recent reports in Turkey, Erdogan has referred to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies toward the Palestinians as “terrorism.” When asked by Ma’ariv if he condemned Palestinian attacks on Israelis, Erdogan said, “Terror has no religion and no race. Terror should be condemned regardless of its source.”

Despite the reassuring words, Israeli officials say they will be watching the new government’s actions closely.

“The biggest concern deals with strategic issues, since Turkey is strategic to us in every respect,” said an Israeli Foreign Ministry official who deals with Turkey. “We will have to judge them according to what they do, not what they say.”

Aydan Kodaloglu, an Ankara political consultant active in promoting Israel-Turkey relations, said she has spoken with a number of senior AKP members who say the party will enhance the country’s relationship with Israel.

“So far they have been following a very careful approach, both to national Turkey and the international arena,” she said.

Ilter Turan, a professor of politics at Istanbul Bilgi University, said he does not expect the new government to change Turkey’s stance on Israel.

“There seems to be a sensitivity among the new team not to delve into areas that would cause a lot of tensions in society, and delving into the relations with Israel would cause tensions,” Turan said.

Turkey’s 25,000 Jews, meanwhile, are approaching the election results with caution.

“There is this question mark: Is Erdogan really who he says he is, or is he really anti-Israel or anti-Semitic?” said Rifat Bali, an independent researcher who has written about the Turkish Jewish community.

Still, the mood in the Jewish community is significantly different than in 1996, when Turkey’s first pro-Islamic prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan of the now-banned Welfare Party, took office.

Erbakan, who had a history of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements, was forced out by the military in 1997.

“I don’t think the same sense of fear and panic exists like when Erbakan came into power,” Bali said. “Maybe a sense of unease.”

A senior Jewish community leader said an encouraging sign has been the community’s ongoing dialogue with AKP leaders.

“If the general air in the country is not confrontational, the party can do good work,” the leader said. “They have under their wings some good people. We’re hopeful.”

AKP is working hard to present itself not as an Islamic party but as a conservative democratic one, along the lines of Christian Democratic parties in Western Europe.

Many Turkish voters did not choose AKP out of religious sentiment, it seems, but rather out of disgust with the parties in the previous government — all of which were ousted from Parliament in the recent elections — and out of a desire to see someone new tackle Turkey’s economic crisis.

The government’s approach to issues such as relations with Israel ultimately is a question of political survival.

Despite the AKP’s clear victory, observers say the party likely will have little room to maneuver when it comes to Israel policy. That policy mostly is dictated by the Turkish military, which sees itself as the defender both of the country’s borders and its secular tradition.

“The military has a set policy vis-a-vis Israel, and they have drawn this policy not for a-six month period, of course, but for a long-term policy. Whatever is in their policy will be implemented,” Kodaloglu said.

“The military will be looking at” AKP “very closely,” she said. “They will only be allowed to make one mistake. The tolerance level is not very high.”

AKP already has shown itself to be quite different from Erbakan’s Welfare Party. One of Erbakan’s first visits abroad was to Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi, in an attempt to link Turkey with the wider Muslim world.

In contrast, Erdogan’s first state visit was to Italy, to discuss Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

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