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Turkey, Israel Say Blasts Haven't Shaken Ties

The nations share a strategic relationship and common foes. Al Qaeda reportedly is behind the attacks on the two synagogues.

November 17, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ISTANBUL — The bombing of two synagogues here, purportedly claimed by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, focuses attention on Turkey's deep, lucrative relationship with Israel and raises questions whether Turkey is now paying the price for that friendship.

A statement sent Sunday to the London-based Arab-language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi claimed Al Qaeda carried out the attacks during Saturday prayers because it had learned that agents from the Israeli Mossad secret service were using the synagogues. The authenticity of the statement could not immediately be verified.

For years, Jewish Israel and Muslim-but-secular Turkey have maintained military, economic, commercial and strategic ties. In a relationship based on regional isolation and the threat of common enemies, the two countries exchange intelligence, buy or sell everything from tanks and helicopters to water, and annually join in war games, the most recent, conducted with the United States, dubbed Reliant Mermaid.

Israeli investigators rushed to the wreckage left by the double car bombings and on Sunday picked through the ruins in search of clues. Specialized religious rescuers from Israel were also at work, and three additional bodies were recovered, raising the death toll to 23 people: six Jews, including an 8-year-old girl and her 85-year-old grandmother, and 17 Muslims.

Israeli and Turkish officials said Sunday that they would not let the bombings damage their relations.

"These attacks against prayers were cowardly attacks carried out by extremists who don't want to see countries that are sharing values of democracy, freedom and rule of law," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said after arriving in Istanbul and inspecting the devastation.

He laid a wreath in the knee-deep ruins at the Neve Shalom Synagogue, where Turkish residents had also scattered yellow and white chrysanthemums.

At the bombed synagogues, investigators were focusing on, among other elements, the ingredients used to concoct the huge car bombs in an effort to connect them to a string of attacks in Morocco, Tunisia and Kenya over the last 19 months -- all of which targeted Jews.

Security officials, speaking before Sunday's purported Al Qaeda claim, told Turkish media that the two 850-pound bombs, detonated moments apart, appeared to be the well-planned work of Turkish extremists who were backed by foreign mentors. The discovery of bits of flesh on the steering wheel in a destroyed car in front of one of the synagogues seemed to confirm that the attacks were executed by suicide bombers. The Anatolia News Agency reported that DNA from the flesh was matched to a body found with wires attached to it.

Turkish leaders again denounced "international links" to the attacks, which wounded more than 300 people.

Among many Turks, the consensus was that their country, the epitome of moderate Islam, had been attacked because of its close relationships with Israel and with the United States. If a role by Al Qaeda is confirmed, hitting Turkey also illustrates the group's ability to move closer and closer to Europe. Straddling two continents, Turkey is essentially a gateway to Europe.

Turkey has long rebuffed criticisms from the Arab world over its ties to Israel, an arrangement that has earned Ankara favor in Washington.

"The logical conclusion is that these attacks were aimed at undermining Turkey's relations with Israel, the Jews and the United States," said Dogu Ergil, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs at Ankara University.

Turkey was the first -- and for decades the only -- Muslim country to recognize the state of Israel, established in 1948. For many years, the ties were mostly symbolic. In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, both Turkey and Israel saw the benefits of improving trade, cultural and technological exchanges. Ankara upgraded its diplomatic mission to Tel Aviv in 1994.

In 1996, the two countries signed a multimillion-dollar military pact. Israel, constrained by its tiny size, would now be able to train combat pilots in the airspace over much larger Turkey. Turkey, often denied access to American arms because of its dismal human rights record, was able to buy equipment from Israel, including electronic systems to update its fleet of F-4 Phantom jets.

For Israel, reaching out to Turkey came as part of its strategy of jumping over hostile Arab neighbors and forming alliances with nations just beyond. And friendship with a Muslim country was very much a feather in Israel's cap, a way to broadcast acceptance despite the unresolved conflict with Palestinians.

Turkey, too, needed an alliance with a powerful country like Israel to balance its poor standing among Arabs, whose antipathy toward Turks may well be a holdover from the days of the Ottoman Empire.

So, both Turkey and Israel saw themselves as outsiders.

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