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Chill settles over Turkey-Israel relations

Turkey's hard line toward Israel, triggered by the Gaza offensive, is not easing. The nations' unusually close military alliance is threatened.

February 15, 2009|Laura King

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a very public set-to with Israeli President Shimon Peres last month in the normally genteel setting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, he earned himself a tumultuous welcome back home.

Thousands of cheering supporters turned out to greet him at the airport upon his return from Switzerland. Adoring crowds mobbed his public appearances the following day. Newspaper editorials across the Muslim world hailed him as a hero for taking Israel to task for its offensive in the Gaza Strip. "Turkey is proud of you!" one headline exulted.

In the wake of Israel's 22-day military operation, which left hundreds of Palestinian civilians dead, a distinct chill has settled into its long-cordial relations with Turkey, by far the Jewish state's closest ally in the Muslim world.

In the latest sign of continuing tensions, Turkey on Saturday summoned Israel's envoy for a dressing-down at the Foreign Ministry over remarks made by a senior Israeli commander about Turkish policies toward its Kurdish and Armenian ethnic minorities -- both hot-button topics here.

Turkey's powerful military weighed in as well, saying that published remarks by Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi suggesting that repressive Turkish policies left its government in no position to criticize the Gaza offensive could even call the two countries' military relationship into question.

"The comments have been assessed to be at the extent that the national interests between the two countries could be damaged," the army's general staff said in a statement carried by the state-run Anatolia news agency.

Turkey's unusually close military alliance with Israel, including regular joint training exercises and rare privileges such as the use of Turkish airspace for training exercises, has yielded solid strategic gains for the government in Ankara, helping cement its status as a trusted NATO ally and a moderate Muslim state with aspirations to join the European Union.

Commercial ties, too, are robust; trade between the two countries amounts to nearly $3.5 billion a year. But the close inter-government links sometimes seem to run counter to popular sentiment, particularly in recent weeks.

A Turkish soccer star won rousing cheers when he planted the Palestinian flag on the pitch during a match. An Israeli basketball team in the country for a friendly match was heckled by a shoe-throwing crowd, prompting the game's cancellation. An anti-Israel rally last month in Istanbul drew 200,000 people, and some participants burned Israeli and U.S. flags.

Turkey is the most popular foreign destination for Israeli tourists, who flock to its Mediterranean coast for inexpensive package holidays. But in the immediate aftermath of the Gaza confrontation, reservations plunged by half, according to year-on-year figures.

An Israeli couple who visited Istanbul's historic main synagogue on a recent rainy Jewish Sabbath said they had sensed a chilly reserve rather than the usual warm welcome they customarily receive from Turks.

"Around people we don't know, we are definitely trying to avoid mentioning our nationality," said the husband, a doctor who has traveled to Turkey many times for medical conferences and didn't want his name used.

Turkish authorities have acknowledged that the country's Jewish community, badly shaken after two synagogues were among a string of Istanbul targets bombed by Al Qaeda militants in 2003, could face new dangers. Police this month detained some suspected Al Qaeda members who they said were planning to try to assassinate a Jewish religious leader.

In the wake of the Davos dust-up, Erdogan, who has carefully cultivated a Western-friendly image, has sought in interviews and speeches to make a distinction between criticism of Israeli policy and the whipping up of anti-Jewish sentiment.

"I did not target in any way the Israeli people or the Jewish people. . . . We are against anti-Semitism," he said. But he added: "Criticism against Israel is not an anti-Semitic act. People living in the Middle East are tired of war, tension, bloodshed and tears."

Many commentators believe domestic politics are playing a role in the government's current hard line toward Israel. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party is facing bellwether local elections next month, which coincide with rising discontent over economic hardship. At local campaign events, criticism of Israel is a proven crowd-pleaser.

Commentators including Mehmet Kamis, a columnist for the nationally circulated Zaman daily, have argued that even if some of the harsh language about Israel is a matter of political expediency, Turkey may have far less to lose from a diplomatic rupture than Israel.

He and others have pointed out that Turkey is one of the very few states in a position to mediate between Israel and harder-line Muslim countries in a variety of regional disputes.

"Israel," he said, "should think twice before offending Turkey."

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laura.king@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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