Israel-Turkey Ties Turn a Corner

President Shimon Peres made history on his mid-November visit to Turkey by addressing the parliament in Ankara, the first time an Israeli head of state has spoken in the legislature of a Muslim country. And observers were saying that the visit was an indication that after a series of crises over the last few years, the strategic relationship between Israel and Turkey has managed to turn a corner in the right direction. "The feeling is that we have managed to overcome the difficult political crises that we faced. These shocks were absorbed and everything has continued to move forward," says an Israeli diplomat based in Turkey. "There is a sense that both sides believe in the potential of these relations." The rise of the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), which first came to power in Turkey in 2002 and was reelected this past summer, had led to several incidents which tested the strength of the ties between Jerusalem and Ankara. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's criticism of Israel has, at times, been especially harsh, once accusing Israel of practicing "state terror" in 2004. Turkey's growing ties with Syria and Iran and, more significantly, its hosting of firebrand Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal on an official visit, in early 2006, had exposed some fundamental rifts between the two allies. Recently, though, cooperation has been stepped up. A projected underwater oil and gas pipeline from Turkey to Israel is moving ahead. Talks are underway on the sale of Israel's Arrow missile defense system and on an Ofek spy satellite to Turkey. In his speech to the parliament, Peres suggested that Turkey had an important role to play in helping solve the Middle East conflict. "Turkey can make a unique contribution... as both a global architect and a local actor," the president said, speaking in Hebrew translated into Turkish. "We may be saying different prayers, but our eyes are turned toward the same sky and toward the same vision for the Middle East." The Peres visit came at the same time as one by Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, who also addressed parliament. The two were there to sign an agreement to set up a joint industrial park on the border between Israel and the West Bank, operated with Turkish help. Turkey, over the last few years, has begun to improve its relations with its Muslim and Arab neighbors and to recast itself as kind of regional mediator. Henri Barkey, an expert on Turkey at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University, says that any expanded role Ankara wants to play in the Middle East, particularly that of a mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict, will force it to maintain its strong relations with Jerusalem, since its ties to Israel give it a different kind of image in Washington and even Brussels than its neighbors. "The truth is that the Turks have a potential role to play and the one very smart thing that the AKP has understood is that if you are going to have influence among the Arab countries, you have to have good relations with Israel," he says.