Israel's strained relations with Turkey could prove costly

McClatchy NewspapersJune 3, 2010 

JERUSALEM — Israel's botched commando raid on the pro-Palestinian aid flotilla this week has caused enormous strains in the Jewish state's relations around the world, but nowhere has the damage been more critical than in ties with Turkey, once its closest friend in the region.

Nine Turks died in the raid early Monday, among them Furkan Dogan, 19, who was born in Troy, N.Y. and carried a U.S. passport. He and seven other activists were commemorated in an enormous funeral in Istanbul Thursday. All had been aboard the Mava Marmara, which led the six-ship Turkish-sponsored flotilla that was trying to break the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza.

Turkey reacted in fury to the raid, withdrawing its ambassador from Israel and cancelling all pending joint military exercises. Now, Israeli experts on the region say that future military cooperation is out of the question, which threatens to cause major harm to Israeli security interests.

Although little known to many outside the country, Israel has regularly staged joint military exercises with Turkey, and if it were to carry out its threats and attack Iran's nuclear facilities, Israel might need to ask Turkey for overflight permission.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told President Barack Obama Thursday that Israel is on the verge of losing its "best friend" in the Middle East. He called Israel's raid on the Turkish-flagged vessel an unacceptable violation of international law and norms, Turkish media reported.

Erdogan also called on Israel to lift the siege of Gaza, which was established in 2007 when Hamas militants took control of the coastal strip.

However, Turkey, which has publicly championed the Gaza cause since Israel's intervention in the Palestinian territory in December 2008, also has held open the possibility of restoring normal relations — if the Gaza blockade is lifted.

"The future of ties with Israel will depend on the attitude of Israel," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Thursday in Istanbul. "I see no reason for not normalizing the ties, once the Gaza blockade is lifted and our citizens are released."

Thus Turkey effectively has offered Israel a choice between maintaining the Gaza blockade or its military and diplomatic relationship with Turkey.

Intense military cooperation was the driving force behind a decade-long boom in Turkish-Israeli ties, said Dr. Anat Lapidot, an Israeli expert on relations with Turkey at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. The two countries signed a landmark military cooperation deal in 1996, where Israeli companies were awarded $700 million in contracts to modernize Turkish military equipment.

Relations deteriorated, however, during Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip last year, and in January they took another blow when Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon gave Turkey's envoy to Israel a public dressing-down.

Turkey has cancelled several joint military drills with Israel, and no future exercises have been planned. Jerusalem Post military correspondent Yaakov Katz, who observed previous drills, said that Israel's military benefited greatly from previous drills.

"Israel is a very small country, and the air force requires large places to be able to drill and exercise long range flights — such a potential attack on Iran," he said.

"Turkey which is a very large country has enabled Israel to fly over its airspace, and that has allowed Israel to plan long-range flights, some of which it might have to carry out in the near future," said Katz.

In the past two years, Turkey had become increasingly close to other Muslim States in the region, and last month attempted to help Iran avoid United Nations economic sanctions by proposing a deal to outsource Iranian uranium enrichment to Turkey.

Katz said there's irony in Turkey's improving ties with Iran, since the training Israeli pilots received over Turkish airspace is widely considered to have prepared the Israeli air force for a potential strike on Iran.

Israeli media also have reported that Turkey allowed Israel to access its radars in monitoring Iranian and Iraqi air space, while other deals have involved the exchange of military students and expertise on chemical weapons protection.

"Israel has already begun to look to other countries, such as Azerbaijan, for similar drills," said Lapidot. "Cooperation between Israel and Turkey on a military level might have been considered of vital importance. But since it's no longer an option, all we can do now is shed tears over it."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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