(photo credit: KKL)
Amid growing tension between the countries, Defense Minister Ehud Barak heads to Ankara on Sunday in an attempt to salvage Israel's diplomatic and military alliance with Turkey.
Officials said that during the 12-hour visit, Barak and his Turkish counterpart, Vecdi Gonul, will likely announce the finalization a long-delayed multimillion dollar deal for the delivery of 10 unmanned aerial vehicles to Turkey. Last week, incoming Defense Ministry director-general Udi Shani led a delegation to Turkey to discuss the sale.
The $185 million project was initiated in 2005 but was under the threat of cancellation and the cause of rising tension between the countries after the Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit Systems Ltd. Heron UAVs were found to be incompatible with the payloads made by a Turkish company.
Turkish officials were reportedly in Israel over the weekend to assess the UAVs, which, if found operational would be delivered to Turkey by mid-2010. IAI and Elbit are reportedly paying $12m. in compensation for the delays in delivery of the six remaining UAVs.
Barak will bring a large delegation and with a beefed-up security detail. He will meet with Gonul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. He will also lay a wreath at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish republic and its first president.
Barak will be the most senior Israeli official to visit Turkey since Operation Cast Lead, during which ties with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became strained.
Defense officials said that Barak would discuss a wide range of issues with the Turkish officials, including the Palestinian peace process, Syria and Iran, as well as ways to renew defense ties between the countries. Before Cast Lead, IDF troops and aircraft regularly trained in Turkey, but they have not done so since the offensive against Hamas in Gaza.
Ahead of Barak's visit, an Islamic human rights group petitioned a Turkish prosecutor to start legal proceedings against the defense minister for alleged crimes committed against Palestinians during Cast Lead. The Turkish authorities did not act on Friday's petition by the Istanbul-based Mazlum-Der group and the Justice Ministry in Ankara has previously rejected similar appeals against Israeli officials.
Ties reached a new low last week after Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon dressed down Turkish Ambassador Oguz Celikkol, and later had to apologize for the affair amid threats that the envoy would be recalled.
"We are trying to get relations back on track," one official explained.
The finalization of the UAV deal comes after the Defense Ministry concluded a record-breaking year in defense sales that reached a whopping $6.75 billion. In 2008, sales totalled $6.3b.
Defense officials said that the largest customer was the United States, followed by Asia, Europe and Africa.