Mon, Jan 03, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Turkish foreign minister visits Israel to mend ties

RAPPROCHEMENT The Turkish official is scheduled to meet with Ariel Sharon and other Israeli politicians in an attempt to revive the once thriving relationship

AFP , ANKARA

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul travels to Israel this week for a long-awaited visit to thaw the chill between the two regional allies after Turkey's prime minister accused Israel of state terrorism against the Palestinians.

Gul is scheduled to meet with President Moshe Katsav, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on Tuesday and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday.

Analysts have questioned whether the strategic partnership between Turkey and Israel is on the skids after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May condemned as "state terror" a deadly Israeli raid on the Rafah refugee camp and Ankara temporarily recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv.

Two months earlier Erdogan called the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin a "terrorist act," and in November 2003 turned down a request by Sharon for a brief visit to Ankara, citing his busy schedule.

Friendly ties with Turkey, a strictly secular non-Arab Muslim nation, are crucial for Israel to ease its isolation in the region.

The two countries attracted the ire of Arab nations and Iran in 1996 when they struck a military cooperation accord, which was followed by a sharp increase in trade and cultural exchanges.

Its alliance with Israel gave Turkey leverage in 1998 to put pressure on Syria, its former arch-foe, and secure the expulsion of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan from his long-time safe haven in the Arab country.

Some analysts say Turkey could not have kept mum in the face of Israel's heavy-handed policies against the Palestinians at a time when it is working to improve its estranged ties with the Arab world.

Others have described Erdogan's outbursts as lip service to supporters of his Justice and Development Party, an offshoot of a banned Islamist movement, many of whom are hostile to Israel.

Both Turkish and Israeli officials, however, say the tensions are now a matter of the past and agree the two sides should focus on how to use their partnership to advance the Middle East peace process.

"The relations are back on track," said Emmanuel Nahshon, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy here. "What was lacking were communication channels on issues on which friends may sometimes disagree. Those channels are now being established."

A senior Turkish diplomat said Turkey's criticism of Israel was "parallel" to the reactions of the international community and underlined that Ankara had also regularly condemned Palestinian violence.

"Those reactions [against Israel] are now matter of the past," he said.

"What we want to do now is to make a real contribution to the peace process as true friends would do," he said. "Turkey is one of the few countries in which both Israel and the Palestinians trust."

The diplomat said the peace process would be high on Gul's agenda, with Turkey keen to help if assistance was demanded from it.

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