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Turkish Leader Stresses Strong Ties with Israel in Meeting with U.S. Jews by Matthew E. Berger

December 11, 2002
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At a moment of transition in the country’s history, the Turkish leadership is reaching out to the American Jewish community.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the incoming Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, met with Jewish leaders here Tuesday to express gratitude for the support Turkey has received from the American Jewish community, and to emphasize the bond between Israel and Turkey.

Erdogan’s meeting with the Jews came just before his meeting with President Bush, who had summoned the Turkish leader to try to convince him to back U.S. plans for a war against Iraq.

Turkey, for its part, is seeking U.S. — and Jewish — assistance in its long-sought bid to join the European Union.

Erdogan, through a translator, said he favored continuing the relationship between Israel and Turkey that was begun by his political predecessors.

He also said he would set no preconditions on that relationship and would support expanding it.

“I don’t find it adequate, the current economic and trade relationship we have with Israel,” Erdogan said to a group of some 10 Jewish officials at a meeting convened by the American Jewish Committee.

Military relations between the countries were not discussed, but Jewish leaders say it has remained solid.

The news is welcomed by the Jewish world, initially concerned about the election of a party with Islamic roots in a country founded on democratic, secular principles.

“Those who say nothing has changed are wrong,” said Barry Jacobs, director of strategic strategies for the American Jewish Committee, who attended the meeting.

“He has an Islamist constituency, but nevertheless, he has a reason to preserve this relationship.”

Turkey, a NATO member and close ally of the United States, is seen as an important asset to Israel in the Middle East.

Turkey serves as both a bridge to other Muslim states in the region and as a strategic counterbalance to countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq.

Israel has provided weapons to Turkey, which has had problems obtaining them from the United States because of congressional ties to Turkey’s foes, the Armenian and Greek communities.

In exchange, Israel has garnered one its few true allies in the region, as well as air space and a trading partner.

“Israel gets an Islamic partner, a Muslim partner, that even in the height of the intifada, Ariel Sharon could still pay a state visit to,” Jacobs said.

Turkey’s relations with American Jews reaches back decades, when Turkey often turned to the Jewish community to support its interests in Washington, both political and economic.

And Turkey was seen as a country to work with, in part because it was a secular democracy that has treated well its Jewish population, which dates back more than 500 years and now numbers close to 19,000.

Erdogan, whose party won in last month’s elections, is currently barred from becoming prime minister because of a 1999 conviction for antisecular activities.

He is expected to be appointed after a change in the country’s constitution.

During his meeting with Jewish officials Tuesday, Erdogan pledged to fight anti-Semitism in the Arab world, and said that E.U. membership would allow Turkey to work toward ending anti-Semitism in Europe as well. One topic that was not broached at the Jewish meeting, but is on the minds of everyone, is Iraq.

Turkey is being pressured by the Bush administration to support possible U.S. action against Iraq.

The administration is seeking support not only for the use of bases for airstrikes, as it got during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but also for ground attacks in northern Iraq.

But Turkey is not making a public statement on the issue, despite intense administration pressure that included a visit last week by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Turkish officials cite the unpopularity of U.S. action against Iraq among the Turkish people as its rationale, but Europe’s reaction to the military campaign is crucial as well.

Turkish support for a plan not welcomed in Europe could hurt Turkey’s chances of garnering E.U. acceptance, analysts say.

Turkey’s economy also suffered greatly from the 1991 war, and officials there are nervous about the rise of Kurds in Northern Iraq. Turkey is also home to a significant Kurdish population.

But analysts say that Turkey would benefit from regime change in Iraq. It could lead to an opening of the Iraq- Turkey border, a major trade thoroughfare.

After the Bush-Erdogan meeting on Tuesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said both leaders “agreed that Iraq is a threat to peace, and the importance of Saddam Hussein disarming.”

Fleischer also said the United States would work with Turkey on an aid package to compensate the country for a possible attack on Iraq.

Erdogan primarily steered clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his meeting with the Jews, but he has reportedly characterized Sharon’s policies toward the Palestinians as terrorism.

On Tuesday, he said that stabilizing the economic situation in the Middle East would reduce the threat of terrorism.

“Terrorism stems from people with no other choice but hunger and poverty,” he said.

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