First Published: 2004-05-21

Turks question alliance with Israel after Gaza carnage

Turkish PM Erdogan leads army of critics condemning as ‘state terror’ killings of civilians in Rafah.


Middle East Online

By Sibel Utku Bila – ANKARA

Strategic allies?

Israel's heavy-handed policy against the Palestinians has cast clouds on its ties with Muslim Turkey, the Jewish state's key regional ally, with observers questioning whether their "strategic" partnership is still intact.

Leading the army of critics, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Thursday condemned as "state terror" the killings of civilians in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip.

More than 40 Palestinians have been killed since the Israeli army began its operations in Rafah.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, for his part, warned that Turkish-Israeli relations would suffer.

"The killing of civilians in Rafah and the harsh statement with which Erdogan reacted paved the way for the highest tension in bilateral relations in recent years," the mass-circulation daily Milliyet wrote Friday.

Ankara's warning to Israel came atop other omens that bilateral relations might be on the skids.

In April, a planned visit by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was postponed without explanation, while in November Erdogan turned down a request by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for a brief visit, citing his busy schedule.

Following the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March, Erdogan accused Israel of perpetrating a "terrorist act" and angrily conceded that Ankara's intention to mediate for peace between the Arabs and Israel were "messed up".

There have also been reports that Ankara is planning to sideline Israeli companies from lucrative defense tenders, though these claims have been denied by officials.

Turkey's ties with the Jewish state reached a climax in 1996 when the two nations signed a military cooperation accord, much to the ire of Arab countries and Iran.

The controversial deal was followed by a period of flourishing ties in the economic and cultural fields.

Their cooperation has been widely called a "strategic partnership" as Israel lured on its side a key Muslim nation, while Turkey obtained leverage to put pressure on Syria, which was then regarded as an arch-foe for sheltering Kurdish rebels.

Since then, however, Ankara has settled its disputes with Syria and moved to improve ties with Arab nations.

"It is impossible for Turkey to keep silent at what Israel is doing today... Turkish leaders believe that the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict is a precondition for combatting terrorism and bringing democracy to the region," said Mensur Akgun, a scholar of international relations.

The government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a movement with Islamist roots, is also under pressure from an electorate which is highly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, he said.

Erdogan, however, underlined Friday that his government's reactions were not prompted by religious but humanitarian considerations, directing his anger at Ariel Sharon, the hardline Israeli prime minister.

"The current Sharon administration takes governmental decisions to kill individuals. And they declare that this will continue. Unless we change this, we can never bring peace to the Middle East," Erdogan told the Wall Street Journal.

"Of course, we are not going change our relations with the people of Israel just because of our approach to the Sharon administration," he added.

Akgun commented that Turkey would like to maintain its partnership with Israel as a fundamental policy, but added: "It is hard to say whether the government would like to maintain close ties with the Sharon administration."

Erdal Guven, a columnist at the Radikal daily, was even blunter in his verdict.

"It is obvious that the 'strategic alliance' is in a period of erosion," he wrote.


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