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Israel-Turkey Relations Hit Turbulence

El Al halts its flights to the Muslim nation amid countries' war of words. The rift gives U.S. pause.

June 27, 2004|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — When Israel's national airline, El Al, suspended flights to Turkey last week, Israeli officials cited Turkey's refusal to permit Israeli air marshals to carry their weapons on the ground.

But some officials here worry that Israel's decision to halt the flights may be linked to an escalating war of words between Turkey and its closest regional ally.

Turkey's deep military and trade ties to the Jewish state have earned this predominantly Muslim nation crucial support from American congressional leaders and successive U.S. administrations. The rift is causing concern in Washington. President Bush is expected to raise the issue during talks with Turkish leaders here today.

In recent months, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has condemned Israel's crackdown in the Palestinian territories, calling it "state terror."

"While we don't have a problem with the Israeli people," continuing Israeli operations against Palestinian refugee camps in the Gaza Strip would "encourage anti-Semitism in the world," Erdogan said.

Most Turks share their leader's distaste for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies, which they consider to be hard-line. In late May, Erdogan upbraided visiting Israeli Infrastructure Minister Joseph Paritzky over his government's actions. The Turkish prime minister asked Paritzky, "What is the difference between terrorists who kill Israeli civilians and Israel, which also kills civilians?" according to some people who attended the meeting. Erdogan's "tone was cold, arrogant and reprimanding," said one source, who declined to be identified.

Barry Jacobs, a spokesman for the American Jewish Committee who was among a contingent of Jewish activists who met Erdogan in Washington recently, said Erdogan's approach during the U.S. meeting had not been "very different."

"There are ways that friendly states talk about each other; those boundaries were clearly overstepped -- we found his comments disturbing," Jacobs said.

Israel recently broke its official silence with a statement from its Foreign Ministry: "Turkey's allegations that Israel's security measures contribute to anti-Semitism is inappropriate and only reinforces those wishing to harm the Jewish people."

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, in an address to lawmakers Monday, warned that the Jewish state would no longer be able to "restrain itself" in light of Erdogan's remarks.

Such language would have been unthinkable in November when Shalom and his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, walked through the rubble of an Istanbul synagogue, one of two Jewish houses of worship targeted by suicide bombers. More than 60 people, most of them Muslims, died in the bombings and two other attacks that were linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Erdogan has vowed to maintain relations with Israel and to protect his country's 25,000 Jews, many of them descendants of Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition.

Turkey was the first predominantly Muslim country to recognize the state of Israel. In 1996, the two countries signed a landmark military cooperation pact that enabled Israeli combat pilots to train in Turkish airspace. In turn, Israel agreed to provide intelligence and sell high-tech military equipment long denied to Turkey by its fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization because of Ankara's dismal human rights record.

Although the deal provoked fury in the Arab world, it enhanced Turkey's strategic value to the West. For Israel, the symbolic worth of its friendship with a powerful Muslim nation outstripped the military benefits of the arrangement.

Analysts attributed Erdogan's aggressive tone to several factors, chief among them pressure from the conservative flank of his ruling Justice and Development Party, established in 2001 by lawmakers from a banned pro-Islamic party. According to Henri J. Barkey, a specialist on Turkey at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Erdogan may simply have found "new friends."

"He is feeling less in need of Israel and the United States now that European [Union] leaders have signaled their willingness to launch negotiations at the end of this year that would lead to Turkey's eventual membership" in the EU, Barkey said.

Soli Ozel, a Middle East expert at Istanbul's Bilgi University, agreed. "Turkey has in recent years normalized relations with formerly hostile countries like Greece, Syria and Russia," he said. "So, naturally, ties with Israel are being proportionally reduced to fit the new geopolitical realities."

Others saw conflicting agendas in Iraq as the real problem between the two countries. Some Turkish officials said Israel was quietly encouraging the Kurds of northern Iraq to establish an independent state that would supplant Turkey as the Jewish state's closest ally in the region and reignite separatist passions among Turkey's own restive Kurdish population.

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