- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2004

TEL AVIV — The Mediterranean alliance between Israel and Turkey has been strained by recent Israeli offensives in the Gaza Strip, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issuing some unusually pointed criticism.

Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, Feridun Sinirlioglu, was in Ankara last week for consultations on how to nudge relations back on course. And although officials from both countries expressed hope that the flap is over, no one was prepared to rule out another flare-up.

Predominantly Muslim Turkey became the Jewish state’s strongest ally in the region during the 1990s as the militaries of the two countries forged a collaboration that rattled their Arab neighbors. The relationship has weathered more than three years of Israeli-Palestinian violence with few scratches.

But during Israel’s May incursion into the Gaza Strip border town of Rafah to uncover weapons-smuggling tunnels, Mr. Erdogan compared the televised scenes of Gazans losing their homes to Palestinian terror attacks on Israelis.

Israeli officials said Mr. Erdogan’s decision to publicly repeat the accusations of “state terror” several times was not befitting the bilateral relationship.

“We were extremely surprised, both by the words themselves and by the frequency,” said an Israeli diplomat. “If the Turkish prime minister was unhappy with Israeli policy, it would be enough to state it just once. Since the attacks continued we made it clear that we cannot accept it.”

In a series of communications with Turkish officials, Israel warned that the comments were liable to hurt Israeli tourism in Turkey, the diplomat said. Israel is among the top 10 countries sending visitors to Turkey.

The comments of Mr. Erdogan, whose government is led by veterans of Turkey’s political Islamic movement, were seen as a reflection of the dismay among Turks at Israel’s policy in the Gaza Strip. Analysts also said that the prime minister has a reputation for making indiscreet comments sometimes.

After Israel assassinated Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March, Mr. Erdogan characterized the wheelchair-bound Islamist militant as helpless, drawing complaints from Israeli officials. But a Turkish official said the prime minister’s comments reflected more than an emotional outburst.

“The problem is with the policies of the Israeli administration. The way they are dealing with the situation is not in the service of peace,” the official said. “If they are going to make another bombing, I cannot guarantee how the prime minister is going to react.”

Some analysts suggested that Mr. Erdogan’s comments were aimed at currying favor with the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, where Turkey is seeking a leadership role.

To be sure, the relations built up between Israel and Turkey during the past decade have become strongly rooted. The Israeli air force trains in Turkish airspace and the Turkish military has awarded Israeli defense contractors projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In May, Israeli businesses awarded a $1 billion contract for a Turkish construction company to build and maintain a power plant in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. The contract was signed during a visit to Turkey by Israeli National Infrastructure Minister Joseph Paritzky, who reportedly argued with Mr. Erdogan.

Ephraim Inbar, a political scientist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, characterized the bilateral relations as “business as usual,” but criticized the Israeli government for letting tensions fester.

“It’s a high-maintenance relationship,” he said. “The prime minister does not pay enough attention to the Turkish dimension. He should send personal emissaries to explain what Israel is doing.”

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