ISTANBUL, July 14 (JTA) — Moshe Katsav´s recent visit to Turkey, which included a delegation of more than 100 businessmen traveling with the Israeli president, highlighted the growing trade relations between the two countries. Yet some observers say the visit´s subtext was a Turkish attempt to draw closer to Israel as a way of repairing its strained relations with the United States. For Turkey, Israel and the American Jewish lobby may be a backdoor to the leadership in Washington. The Jewish lobby in the United States has been particularly active on behalf of Turkey in recent years, helping to raise the country´s profile on Capitol Hill and to fend off attacks by the Greek and Armenian lobbies. "The worsening of U.S.-Turkish relations has brought Turkey and Israel closer," one Jewish lobbyist in Washington said. "They see that they need more than ever the American Jewish lobby." Katsav capped off the two-day trip on July 10 with a visit to Istanbul´s main synagogue and a cruise up the Bosphorus, before heading to Eastern Europe. The Israeli businessmen on the trip met with Turkish businessmen during Katsav´s stops in Ankara and Istanbul. While military and strategic factors were behind the normalization of ties between Israel and Turkey over a decade ago, trade quickly is becoming a significant part of the two countries´ relationship, Israeli and Turkish analysts said. For example, trade between Turkey and Israel totaled $1.2 billion last year, a dramatic rise from the figure of about $120 million a decade ago. "I think there is an appreciation on the Turkish part that this relationship has an economic dimension, a technological connection. It is a multidimensional relationship, and even the" Justice and Development Party — Turkey´s governing party, whose leaders are veterans of the country´s political Islam movement — "recognize that," said Ilter Turan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. Katsav´s visit is the third to Turkey by a top Israeli official in as many months. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz visited in mid June, while Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom came in April. Meanwhile, Turkey´s top military official, General Hilmi Ozkok, visited Israel last week, and its foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, is expected to go to Israel in coming months. The relative flurry of high-level Turkish-Israeli visits comes as Turkey´s relations with the United States are strained following the refusal of Turkey´s Parliament to allow U.S. forces to open a northern front against Iraq from Turkey during the recent war. In addition, the U.S. military arrested 11 Turkish special forces in northern Iraq; the United States claims the Turks were on a mission to assassinate the Kurdish mayor of Kirkuk. During a lunch event in Istanbul hosted by the Foreign Economic Relations Board, an influential Turkish trade association, Katsav told Turkish businessmen that of the potential for increased economic relations between the two countries. "The cooperation between Israel and Turkey, including economic cooperation, has become an important marker in the Israeli economy," Katsav told the group. Amnon Rasner, general manager of a Netanya-based software and logistics-consulting firm that started working with two Turkish companies a few months ago, said he foresees trade between the two Middle East neighbors growing. "We think that Turkey will be a very interesting place to do business," Rasner said. "Israel is a country of 6 million, but Turkey is a country of 70 million." "In my opinion, this is a market with a lot of possibilities. I think Israeli companies have an advantage here because we think similarly to the Turks, so communication is easy. Also, it´s only an hour and a half away," said Rasner, who travels to Istanbul twice a month on business. Katsav´s day in Istanbul also included a visit to Neve Shalom, the city´s main synagogue, where a ceremony was held in his honor. Entering the packed synagogue to the sound of blowing shofars and accompanied by Turkey´s ornately dressed chief rabbi, Katsav told the crowd that he had come to express gratitude for the refuge Jews found in Turkey when they were expelled from Spain in 1492 and for their continuing success in the country. "The relations between Israel and Turkey are further proof that there is no conflict between Judaism and Islam," Katsav told the crowd, which greeted him with enthusiastic applause. "Judaism and Islam have shared values, and we should not allow in any way for a political conflict to become one between religions." Turkish Jews at the ceremony said the event allowed them to express their connection to Israel. "I wanted to come see him. He is an important person, he is a leader of us," said Sinto Levi, 47, an Istanbul dentist who took time off from work to come to the ceremony. "We are living here but I am also Jewish, so he is also my president." "We are the youth of the Turkish Jewish community, and we think that there is one Israel and we must support it and show that we support it," said Nedim Ergil, 18, a university student who came to the event with two friends. "I feel proud seeing the president. When the Turkish president and other officials meet with him, they show that he is special and that makes me proud." Before coming to Istanbul, Katsav visited Ankara, where he met with both Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer and the country´s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Israeli officials said Katsav and the Turkish leaders discussed ways to strengthen bilateral relations as well as the lingering issue of Israel´s unfulfilled promise to buy water from Turkey´s Manavgat River. "It´s a state visit, which means it has a lot of significance for us and the Turks. It adds an element of respect to the relations," an Israeli diplomat in Turkey said. "It´s certainly a major step forward."
Turkish-Israeli relations improve