Analysis: Turkey gets tough on Israel

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s decision to scrap a military exercise involving
Israel has sparked concerns in Israel about threats to its close
military and economic ties with a key Muslim nation and a NATO member
not always willing to follow the Western line.

The weekend move
by Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government comes at a time
that the country is seeking to expand its influence in the Mideast and
Europe. It is also the latest reflection of widespread anger —
especially in Muslim countries — over the deaths of hundreds of
Palestinian civilians in last winter’s Gaza conflict.

It could
have broad relevance because of Turkey’s growing regional clout, and
strategic position as a nation of more than 70 million that borders
Iraq and Iran and is embroiled in a sputtering effort to join the
European Union.

“Turkey is trying to reposition itself in the
world,” Carina O’Reilly, Europe analyst for London-based Jane’s Country
Risk, said Monday. “It’s trying to establish itself as a power in its
own right.”

In Turkey, analysts see a complex situation with a
government deeply rooted in Islam trying to balance an emerging role as
a voice for Muslims with a continuing alliance with the West.

approach to Israel reflects a “double-faced policy” that began when
Erdogan scolded the Israeli president over Gaza casualties at an
international forum in Switzerland, said Huseyin Bagci, professor of
international relations at Middle East Technical University.

Turkish government, since the Davos incident, (tried) to become the
consciousness of the Middle East,” Bagci said. Behind the scenes,
though, ties with Israel are largely “business as usual,” he said.

furor began Sunday, when Israeli defense officials said Ankara had
called off the international stage of the Anatolian Eagle drills, which
were to have included the U.S. and NATO, because it opposed Israel’s
participation. The U.S. and NATO have not commented on why the exercise
was scrapped.

Turkey itself insisted the reason it “postponed”
the exercise to have been held this week in the Turkish city of Konya
was not political, saying only that it was the result of talks with
participant countries. It urged Israel to exert “good sense in its
approach and statements.”

However, Foreign Minister Ahmet
Davutoglu linked the exercise’s cancellation to the Gaza war in an
interview with CNN on Sunday. Asked why Israel was excluded, he said:
“We hope that the situation in Gaza will be improved, that the
situation will be back to the diplomatic track. And that will create a
new atmosphere in Turkish-Israeli relations as well.”

good ties with Turkey — a mostly Muslim nation — have been a boost for
Israel over the years, easing its isolation in the region at a time of
tension between the Jewish state and much of the Muslim world. Israeli
tourists flocked to Turkey and Ankara benefited from a strong defense
alliance with Israel’s powerful, high-tech military.

But these
ties — always brittle — have started to fray since Israel’s Gaza war in
January, when the deaths of Palestinian civilians outraged opinion
worldwide. Use of Konya as a location for the exercise was sensitive:
during the war, pro-Islamic media in Turkey published stories alleging
Israeli pilots who bombed Gaza targets had been trained in exercises

Some Israeli commentators have raised concerns that the
cancellation of the exercise is part of a gradual policy that will
shift Turkey closer to fundamentalist Iran. Still, despite Turkey’s
improving relationship with Iran, it covets its ties with the West and,
like its allies, has deep concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities.

the background is an increasing skepticism among Turks that their
country, a secular state where tradition is nonetheless strong, will
ever be admitted into the European Union as a full member. Talks have
sputtered for several years and there is persistent opposition in key
EU nations like France and Germany.

In fact, Turkey doesn’t want
to side with any one camp or category, given its complex identity: a
Muslim country with a secular political system, a deeply nationalist
place with a rich imperial history that is still insecure and crafting
its place in the world.

These traits shape its dispute with
Israel, and drive its campaign to become a regional heavyweight with a
web of intricate, overlapping alliances, from NATO to Europe, the
Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans. It seeks reconciliation with
Armenia after a century of hostility, and is trying to solve its long
conflict with its own Kurdish citizens.

For decades, Turkey was a
junior player in the West’s Cold War alliance, run by military
generals; now it has its own voice and enough clout to spar at times
with its NATO partners.

Despite harsh rhetoric, Turkish
pragmatism has kept military business with Israel largely intact.
Israel is involved in two major military projects — tank and fighter
plane upgrades — worth more than US$1 billion in Turkey. The Turkish
military has also bought Israeli drones to help fight Kurdish rebels,
whose strength has waned since their heyday in the 1990s.

between Israel and Turkey are strategic and decades-old,” said Israeli
Defense Minister Ehud Barak. “Despite the ups and downs, Turkey
continues to be a key player in our region. We shouldn’t be drawn into
frenzied statements about it.”

Alon Liel, who was Israel’s No. 1
diplomat in Turkey in the 1980s, described the situation as a “crisis”
and said Israel had received “very harsh signals” from an increasingly
assertive government.

“Today there is a new foreign policy that
doesn’t rely only on the West. They see themselves as a player in many
regional circles,” he said. “All this assertiveness in the region gives
Turkey a self-confidence that allows it to be tougher to us.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: Christopher Torchia is the Associated Press bureau chief in Turkey.

Associated Press writer Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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