By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's continuing statements against Israel are a sign that his government views its anti-Israel stance as a strategic move, Israeli diplomatic officials believe.
These views are being expressed by Israeli officials in the wake of the latest comment by Erdogan, published Thursday, in which the Turkish premier, on a visit to Washington, said any Israeli attempt to use Turkish airspace for espionage against neighboring countries - of which Iran is the largest - would "receive a response equal to that of an earthquake."
Erdogan cautioned Israel's leaders to refrain from "using the relationship they have with [Turkey] as a card to wage aggression on a third party."
The cooperation agreements between the Israeli and Turkish militaries allow Israeli pilots to train in Turkish airspace, a fact that may be the source of rumors of Israeli spying from Turkish airspace to which Erdogan was responding.
According to Erdogan, in comments made to Egyptian journalist Fahmi Huwaidi, such spying has never happened, but would have dire consequences if it were to occur.
Ankara would not be a neutral party in such a situation, he said.
"The impression [in Israel] is that Turkey's prime minister is constantly attacking Israel and working to bring Turkey closer to the extreme wing of the Middle East," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levy over the weekend.
"The string of statements [by Erdogan] and the line he has consistently taken bring us to the conclusion that this is a strategic move" on the part of Turkey's government, Levy added.
Meanwhile, a senior Israeli diplomatic official gave voice to Israeli misgivings and confusion over Erdogan's policies.
"Erdogan is trying to have it all - to satisfy the Islamist appetite of his voting bloc and turn extremist, but also to preserve the stature of Turkey as a moderate Western state that resolves regional conflicts. But it's clear that these two goals contradict each other," the official said.
In particular, Israeli officials are mystified at Turkey's apparent embrace of the regime in Teheran, whose president has denied the Holocaust and called for Israel's destruction. Erdogan has reportedly called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a "friend" and insisted Iran's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
"Turkey should be as worried as Israel about the dangers of Iranian nuclear weaponization, because it would directly threaten Turkey's regional and international standing in the long term," the Israeli official said.
Relations between Israel and Turkey have suffered since Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, during which Erdogan lashed out repeatedly at Israel over Palestinian casualties, accusing it of intentionally targeting civilians.
Israel is not alone in its concern over Turkey's geopolitical future. During Erdogan's visit to Washington last week, 10 United States senators, ranging from liberal Democrat Russ Feingold to conservative Republican Jim Inhofe, sent a letter to the Turkish ambassador in Washington saying that "we have grown increasingly concerned about the downward trend of relations between Turkey and Israel this past year."
Citing Israel's exclusion from the Anatolian Eagle military exercise in October, which led to its cancellation by NATO and American forces, the senators urged Turkey to resume its "longstanding strategic cooperation with Israel and its positive role as an honest broker in the Middle East."
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