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Turkey’s Prime Minister’s Israel Trip Might Presage End of Difficult Period

April 22, 2005
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The recent announcement that Turkey’s prime minister, will visit Israel is a signal that the two Middle Eastern allies may be coming to the end of a rocky period in their relationship, officials in Turkey and Israel say. “The significance for both sides is that the official declaration of the visit means that relations are back on track after a tough political year,” Pinhas Avivi, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey, told JTA. “The economic and security relations were not impacted, but I think” Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “visit will again solidify the political relations.”

Erdogan, who heads the Islamic Justice and Development Party, is scheduled to depart for Israel on May 1 and spend two days there. He is expected to meet with his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and President Moshe Katsav.

Erdogan also will visit the Palestinian territories and meet with officials there.

In many ways, the tension that grew between Jerusalem and Ankara stemmed from Erdogan’s office. Several times, the Turkish prime minister described Israel’s actions against the Palestinians as “state terror.”

The criticism of Israel is believed to stem from two sources: the roots of Erdogan’s party in Islamic fundamentalism, and the fact that Turkey can score political points in the Arab and Muslim world by blasting Israel, knowing that the Jewish state never reciprocates by criticizing Turkey’s treatment of its minorities or its role in the Armenian genocide.

The upcoming visit, Erdogan’s first to Israel, has been in the works for a long time; the length of time it took to arrange it became yet another point of friction.

In that sense, Erdogan’s visit has important symbolic value, said Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“After the strained period of harsh remarks toward Sharon and his government, if this trip goes well and there is a deepening of understanding and dialogue, it would mean the return to normality for the Turkish-Israeli relationship,” he said.

“It’s important for Erdogan and Sharon to meet in person, to create a channel of communication and to help them realize that they are both politicians,” Cagaptay continued. “This will be a chance for them, especially for Erdogan,” to show “that the other side is just a politician with human ambitions and nothing more.”

Turkey’s relations with the United States also are strained now. American political and military officials continue to express disappointment over Turkey’s refusal to allow U.S. troops to enter Iraq from the north, across the Turkish border, when the war in Iraq began two years ago.

Washington also has been alarmed by a rise in anti-American sentiment in Turkey. One of the country’s bestsellers, for example, is the fictional account of an American military invasion of Turkey.

Erdogan is expected to visit the United States later in May, but Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, said Erdogan’s visit to Israel is an indication that one of the roads to Washington goes through Jerusalem.

“I think it’s a signal to Washington” that Turkey wants to improve its relationship with the United States, “and could use Israel’s help in doing that,” Inbar said.

Ankara also depends on the support of American Jewish organizations, who frequently have acted as the main lobbyists on Turkey’s behalf in Washington. Jewish American leaders recently have expressed concerns about the strains between Turkey and both Israel and the United States.

“If the trip is going to bring the period of the strains to an end,” and will help normalize the relationship between Turkey and Israel, “this would be one way of winning back the hearts of the American Jewish organizations,” Cagaptay said.

Despite the political tensions, Israeli and Turkish officials point out that other components of the relationship between the two countries — particularly trade and military cooperation — have not been affected. The level of annual trade between the two countries is now approaching $2 billion, up from $1.2 billion three years ago.

Turkey also recently signed a $200 million deal to buy a sophisticated network of unmanned aerial vehicles and ground stations from Israel. Erdogan’s visit — and an expected reciprocal trip by Sharon to Turkey — will help bring the relationship back to normal, Inbar said.

“You have to invest in bilateral relations, especially with Turkey. This is a chance for Israel to invest in the relationship, to introduce Erdogan to the right people,” Inbar said. “Maintenance is an important part of the relationship.”

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