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Analysis: Turkey Gets Tough On Israel

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.

Turkey's 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.

"The 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.

The 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."

Israel's 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 there.

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.

In 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 oppsition 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.

"Relations 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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