- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 21, 2010

With Turkish-Israeli relations on the rocks, the Jewish state has found a new friend in GreeceTurkey’s neighbor and longtime nemesis.

The Israeli and Greek air forces conducted a joint drill in southern Greece last week. Then on Monday in Jerusalem, the Greek and Israeli foreign ministers signed a civil-aviation agreement — the countries’ first bilateral pact in 60 years — and expressed hope for cooperation in other arenas. Talks reportedly also are under way for construction of an Israeli natural-gas pipeline that would run through Greece. The idea was raised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back in August, when he became the first Israeli premier to visit Athens.

“Our increasingly strong relationship with Greece is part and parcel of our important relationships with countries in the Mediterranean,” a senior Israeli official told The Washington Times, cautioning not to read improved Israeli-Greco relations as a repudiation of Turkey.

“We do not consider this to be a zero-sum game,” he said. “We strive to have good strategic relations with all countries in the Mediterranean that are willing to have relations with us.”

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan told The Times on Wednesday that when it came to Greece and Israel, “it’s up to them how to follow their relations.”

Still, he acknowledged that Turkish-Israeli relations, which he called “very, very crucial for our region,” remain in crisis nearly five months after nine Turks were killed aboard a Gaza-bound Turkish-flagged ship in a melee with Israeli commandos.

“It’s the first time since the first world war that Turkish citizens are being killed by an army of another country,” Mr. Babacan said. “And how to expect this from a so-called friendly country? Because we were referring to Israel as a friend always, throughout the decades. So, under these conditions, how to continue cooperation, especially in sensitive areas like military and so forth?”

“We don’t just close the door,” he added. “We don’t close the communication channels. We had some conditions for the Israelis — that if you do this, this, this, this and this, we can gradually get back to normal. And we are still waiting for those conditions.”

While Israel has accepted one condition — an international probe into the incident — it has flatly ruled out another: an apology.

The Turkish-Israeli alliance has been in free fall since the final days of 2008, when Israel launched its 22-day military campaign against Hamas in Gaza. Mr. Babacan said that Turkey, then mediating peace talks between Israel and Syria, had insisted on “quiet in Gaza” as one of its preconditions, “and those preconditions were broken.”

“That was a big blow in the relations for us,” he said.

A series of other incidents over the past two years, including a verbal bout between the Turkish prime minister and Israeli president at Davos after the Gaza war, have further poisoned the atmosphere.

Against this backdrop, Turkey has made a number of moves that have distressed the West in general and Israel in particular. In June, at the United Nations Security Council, it voted against sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, which is widely believed to be aimed at producing a bomb despite repeated Iranian denials. In April, it conducted defense drills with Syria.

Mr. Babacan defended Turkish cooperation with Damascus, saying that Ankara had engaged the Syrians with “a very positive agenda” and that “it’s now working out.”

“They have been contributing to the Middle East peace process, they have been contributing to the stabilization of Lebanon, they are now contributing a lot for Iraq — for the stabilization of Iraq — and we are cooperating with them very strongly for regional issues.”

The U.S. State Department lists Syria as a state sponsor of terror for giving Hamas external headquarters in Damascus and for facilitating the transshipment of Iranian rockets to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Asked about the prospect of formal Turkish-Iranian military exercises, Mr. Babacan said, “We don’t see there is a need for that anytime soon, so it’s not something on our agenda,” but he declined to rule it out when asked a second time. He emphasized that Turkey’s NATO membership remains “the main framework for us.”

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