- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

TEL AVIV — The bombing of two synagogues in Istanbul was probably aimed at undermining a decade-old alliance between Israel and its closest friend in the Muslim world, an Israeli diplomat said.

“We have very tight relations with Turkey,” said Moshe Kanfi, the deputy consul-general in Istanbul, in a telephone interview. “I’m sure that the organizations that have caused the attack would have liked to see the relationship undermined, but I think the opposite will happen.”

Turkish and Israeli investigators yesterday combed the wreckage of the bomb sites where 23 persons were killed and more than 300 injured, news agencies reported. Some 71 of the wounded were still in hospitals yesterday.

The editor of a London-based Arab language newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi, said yesterday he had received an e-mail claiming responsibility for the attacks on behalf of an al Qaeda division called Brigades of the Martyr Abu Hafz al-Masri.

The same group claimed responsibility for a similar car bomb attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August, which killed 23 persons.

One forensics expert said wire devices were found connected to two of the bodies in the Istanbul wreckage, suggesting that the explosive charges may have been detonated by suicide bombers driving pickup trucks past the synagogues. The Associated Press said hundreds of pounds of explosives were involved in each blast.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom flew to Istanbul yesterday to tour the bomb scene with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, reflecting the close ties that have developed between the Jewish state and predominantly Muslim Turkey.

The visit was also an expression of solidarity with the 25,000 Jews remaining in Turkey, most of whom reside in Istanbul. Still, only six of the 23 persons killed in the attack were Jewish; the remainder were bystanders and security officers who had been in and around the buildings during the morning prayer services.

“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,” Mr. Shalom said.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan vowed to leave no stone unturned in the investigation.

“Our determination to fight terrorism in the international arena continues because this event has international links,” Mr. Erdogan said, according to Reuters news agency. “We must solve this in cooperation with other states.”

Turkish news agencies reported that the twin attacks appeared to be the culmination of a well-planned operation.

At the same time, the Turkish paper Radikal reported that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency had warned counterparts in Turkey twice this year about a possible terrorist attack. A warning in April concerned the Neve Shalom synagogue, which was targeted on Saturday. The second warning concerned a possible attack on U.S. and Israeli citizens in Turkey.

An Israeli terrorism expert said there had been repeated warnings of terrorist attacks in Turkey because of its proximity to the Middle East and high number of Arab residents.

Although the al Qaeda terrorist group is a prime suspect in the blast, at least two Turkish militant Islamic groups may have taken part in the bombing to undermine the government, said Shmuel Bar, a fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.

“If it’s local Turkish groups, it’s a destabilizing factor against a Turkish government, which is actually an Islamic government,” Mr. Bar said. “In the eyes of those organizations, it puts the Turkish government, which is an Islamic government, in the same league as any secular government.”

The warm relations between Israel and Turkey go back to 1948 when the government in Ankara became the first Muslim country to recognize Israel after it declared independence.

Military ties began to tighten over the last decade, with the two countries’ navies holding annual maneuvers with the United States and with Israel’s government selling Turkey advanced military technology.

The relationship has prompted criticism from Arab countries, who have called on Turkey to come out against Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. The close ties have even endured the rise to power of Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party.

The Israeli diplomat predicted that the bombing of the synagogues would only serve to strengthen the Turkish-Israeli alliance.

“The relations are getting tighter and stronger because the two countries understand they share the same fate,” Mr. Kanfi said. “I am sure it will strengthen relations.”

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