- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 16, 2002

NICOSIA, Cyprus Turkey has launched intense diplomatic maneuvers to assure Israel of continued cooperation between the two countries despite criticism of Israeli conduct in the Palestinian territories.

At stake are arms contracts, security cooperation and plans to ship Turkey's abundant water to Israel. A Muslim society with a secular government, Turkey is Israel's only ally in the region.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit outraged Israelis last week when he characterized the Israeli military operation as "genocide being carried out before the eyes of the world."

Turkish diplomats were quickly mobilized to tell their Israeli colleagues that any offense was not intended. A series of diplomatic notes followed, informed sources said, with both countries trying to avoid a row damaging to both partners.

"Apparently, a single word that I have used has led to consternation among our Jewish-American and Israeli friends," Mr. Ecevit said in a statement distributed yesterday in Washington. "Definitely it was not my intention to offend the Jewish people in any way."

Mr. Ecevit's role is particularly delicate in view of rising Islamic fundamentalism in his country. In opposing the religious fervor, diplomats say, Mr. Ecevit can count on the influential military, regarded to be the ultimate arbiter in Turkey.

Turkey is also trying to assure Arab nations of its solidarity with the Palestinians, diplomats say. The maneuvers surrounding Turkey's Middle East dilemma have prompted the Greek daily Kathimerini to comment, "Turkish leaders are confused and they are making bizarre statements."

Turkey and Israel have been cooperating in a number of fields under the 1996 Defense Cooperation Treaty. At the time, Israel hailed the agreement as paving the way to a number of joint ventures with the slogan, "When we lock hands, we form a powerful grip."

The agreement caused considerable alarm in Greece, Cyprus and in several Arab capitals.

In the latest development, several Arab nations reproached Turkey for awarding Israel a $688 million contract to upgrade its aging tanks. Although the first such tanks are not due until 2007, the signing ceremony took place while Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, was under Israeli siege.

In explaining the timing, Turkish officials said that it didn't matter because "55 years of conflict in the Middle East cannot be resolved overnight," according to diplomatic reports.

Turkey granted the contract to Israeli Military Industries (IMI) without soliciting international bids. Under the agreement, IMI will upgrade an initial group of 170 of Turkey's M60 1A main battle tanks at a cost of approximately $4 million per tank.

According to military experts, the purchase of new state-of-the-art tanks would cost only a fraction more. Some diplomats believe that Mr. Ecevit made the decision in order to solidify Turkish ties with Israel.

Future defense contracts are likely to be limited because of Turkey's serious economic crisis. Last year, following the example of Greece, its historic foe, Turkey put on hold a planned arms spending program estimated at $19.5 billion.

Arab countries are also concerned about plans for shipping water from Turkey's Manavgat River to the Israeli port of Ashkelon, south of Tel Aviv.

Water is a major issue in the area, and Turkey controls the sources of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which flow into the Persian Gulf through Iraq. Both Iraq and Syria have accused Turkey of limiting the flow of water into their countries.


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