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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who arrived in Turkey Wednesday evening to bolster strategic ties with Ankara, is scheduled to meet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Thursday, during which Erdogan is expected to voice criticism of the excavation work at the Mughrabi Gate.
Diplomatic officials said this issue has stirred passions in Muslim Turkey, and that Erdogan - who is considering a presidential bid in April, and whose popular party is facing national elections later in November - could win public opinion points by scolding Olmert over the issue.
The two men will hold a joint press conference after holding a morning meeting. They will also dine together in the evening.
Erdogan was quoted by the Anatolia news agency on Tuesday as warning Israel not to increase tension over excavations at the site, saying it would lead to an uproar in the Islamic world. He made his comments at a meeting of his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Olmert told reporters on his plane to Turkey that he was in "constant" contact with Erdogan, adding that "Turkey has a very significant role to play in our region. It is a leading Muslim country that acts as a bridge between us and Arab countries."
This is the first visit of an Israeli prime minister to Turkey since Ariel Sharon went there in 2001. Erdogan visited Israel in May 2005, and Olmert went to Turkey in July 2004 as the minister of industry and trade, and was instrumental in reducing tensions at the time stemming from Erdogan's harsh criticism of Israel for its military steps against the Palestinians.
"Israel is very unpopular now in Turkey, the US is even more so and this is an election year [in Turkey]," Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat in Turkey and author of several books on Israeli-Turkish relations, said in an interview. "These are circumstances in which Erdogan can afford to criticize Israel publicly."
Writing in The New Anatolian, editor-in-chief Ilnur Cevik said Erdogan has to walk a fine line as he attempts to maintain his domestic support while cultivating relations with all sides in the Middle East conflict.
"Erdogan cannot afford to alienate his own voters as we approach the parliamentary elections in November and hence the public warning to Israel" on Tuesday, Cevik wrote.
A group of some 50 people protested in Istanbul against Olmert's visit, holding signs that read, "Murderer Olmert, Get Out!"
Olmert wants to increase trade with Turkey, which grew last year to about $1.6 billion in imports and $900 million in exports, according to government figures. He is also looking to advance construction of a "corridor" of pipelines to Israel for oil from Russia and water from Turkey, and discuss with the Turks a Turkish project to rebuild the Erez industrial park.
Olmert was also expected to raise with Erdogan the issue of mediating with Syria over the return to Israel of the remains of Eli Cohen, the spy who was hanged in Damascus in 1965. Olmert spoke to Cohen's widow, Nadia, before his departure.
Erdogan has in the past offered his help in mediating between Israel and Syria, and - according to diplomatic officials - was insulted when then-prime minister Ariel Sharon unceremoniously rejected his offer. Syria, as well as Iran, is also expected to figure prominently in Olmert's talks.
"This is a very important visit for Olmert because Turkey can be helpful not just with the Palestinians but also with Lebanon and Syria," said Liel, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry who now teaches at the Lauder School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "Relations are not as good as they were in the second half of the '90s when it was a real love affair, but they have a lot of common interests."
Liel was involved in unofficial track-two talks with Syria that began with Turkish involvement some three years ago. Diplomatic officials said that the Turks withdrew their involvement when it appeared that those talks were not going anywhere.
Olmert, who met with a delegation from the Turkish Jewish community soon after his arrival Wednesday night, is scheduled to return to Israel after midnight on Thursday. He will then prepare intensively for his planned trilateral meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday.
Rice is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem Saturday evening and meet with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. On Sunday she is scheduled to meet separately with Olmert and Abbas, in preparation for the trilateral meeting scheduled for the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. She is scheduled to leave on Tuesday for Amman, and from there she will go to Berlin for a meeting of the Quartet principals on Wednesday.
Envoys from the US, EU, Russia and the UN, which make up the Quartet, are scheduled to hold a preparatory meeting in Jerusalem on Friday in advance of the trilateral talks.
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Sultanov arrived in Jerusalem on Wednesday and met with Livni to update her on Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan.
Israeli officials described this as a "very routine meeting to discuss the Palestinian issue." The officials said that Livni explained to Sultanov Israel's position on the Mecca agreement. Russia came out immediately after the Mecca meeting and called for a renewal of economic aid to the Palestinian Authority, but the Russian official - according to Israeli sources - explained to Livni that the intention was that the money goes to Abbas, and not Hamas.
Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem confirmed that the US and Israel were coordinating "at the highest levels" in preparation for the meeting. The officials said that despite the initial hope that this meeting would focus on providing the Palestinians with a "political horizon," the Mecca agreement has now changed the agenda.
"It is very difficult to talk about a political horizon now," one official said. "In theory, anything can be discussed, but in practical terms it would be strange and awkward. Something happened in Mecca, and this needs to be taken into consideration."
Bloomberg's Jonathan Ferziger and Mark Bentley contributed to this report.
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