A strategic friendship cools; Turkey and Israel

The Economist
June 26, 2004
U.S. Edition

A strategic friendship cools; Turkey and Israel

Relations between Israel and Turkey

The two old allies are getting on each other’s nerves. Why?

WHEN Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist, swept to power alone in 2002
to become Turkey’s prime minister, Israelis were worried that
relations with their closest friend in the region might cool. True,
Mr Erdogan had publicly disavowed his Islamist past and insisted he
would still look to America, Europe and Israel for friendship. But
the Israelis wanted proof.

They are not getting it. On the contrary, a year ago Mr Erdogan
snubbed a request by Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, to visit
Turkey. Neither Mr Erdogan nor his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul,
have been to Israel. Officials on both sides say the “special
relationship” is secure. A pact signed in 1996 still lets Israeli
fighter pilots train in Turkish airspace, to the irritation of many
Arabs. Trade still booms.

But the bad blood is still being stirred. This week Silvan Shalom,
Israel’s foreign minister, said that Israel could not “restrain
itself” for much longer in the face of Mr Erdogan’s scratchy remarks,
which were harming the very fabric of the two countries’
relationship. Mr Erdogan has accused Israel of “state terrorism”
against the Palestinians in the Gaza strip. Last month he asked an
Israeli minister to explain the difference between “terrorists who
kill Israeli civilians and Israel’s killing of civilians too”.
Similar bluntness earlier this month annoyed a group of Jewish
Americans whom he met in the United States.

So why the change? Mr Erdogan’s proclaimed distaste for Mr Sharon’s
policies is probably genuine. It is certainly shared by many millions
of Turks who have been watching television pictures of Israeli tanks
demolishing Palestinian houses. Besides, he has to appease
conservatives in his ruling Justice and Development party. They are
disgruntled by his failure, among other unIslamist things, to lift
the ban on the wearing of headscarves by women in government offices
and schools.

Some, however, say that the most compelling reason for Mr Erdogan’s
new tone of hostility is his belief that Israel has been encouraging
Iraq’s Kurds to form their own independent state that would not only
become Israel’s new ally in the region but might also rekindle
separatism among Turkey’s own restive Kurds. Such fears have grown
since the New Yorker magazine said that Israeli agents now train
Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq. Israel denies it.

Mr Erdogan knows he must tread warily. If he annoys Israel or the
Jewish-American lobby too much, it will be harder for Congress to
spike resolutions calling for recognition of the massacres of
Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in the first world war as genocide.