Prague, 10 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's prime minister last month sparked an angry reaction after harshly criticizing his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon for his Palestinian policy.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on world leaders to condemn an ongoing Israeli army operation in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, which killed more than 40 Palestinians.
"I invite all those who hold responsibility -- prime ministers and heads of state -- to take a joint stance against these actions that have escalated almost to the level of state terror," Erdogan said.
The following day, Turkey's popular "Milliyet" daily commented that Erdogan's remarks were "paving the way for the highest tension in bilateral ties in recent years." Israel in turn described the Turkish leader's comments as "extremely regrettable."
Erdogan had already drawn Israeli criticism earlier in the year by denouncing the March assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the head of the radical Palestinian Hamas movement, as a "terrorist act."
The Turkish leader, who has reportedly turned down an invitation to visit Israel, blamed Sharon's policies for keeping Ankara from playing a constructive role in helping to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is not the first time ties between Israel and NATO's only Muslim member have come under strain.
In April 2002, then-Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit sparked an public outcry in Israel when he said Sharon's policy toward the Palestinians was tantamount to "genocide."
A few months earlier, in November 2001, the Turkish leader publicly scolded Sharon during a joint press conference in Ankara, rejecting the Israeli prime minister's claims that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was "supporting terror."
Tension sparked by these two incidents quickly abated, however, with both countries playing down Ecevit's sharp remarks.
Since Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power, Turkey has maintained warm ties with both the United States and Israel, while continuing Ankara's recent policy of rapprochement with Iran and the Arab world.
Erdogan himself last week said that, as far as his government is concerned, "ties between the people of Turkey and the people of Israel remain strong."
Bulent Aliriza, Turkish project director at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL that two factors seem to indicate that Turkish-Israeli relations are going through a "very sensitive period."
"One is that we have a new government in Turkey [which] is a government of Islamist origins, although it is at pains to say that it is not an Islamist party. And the criticism from the [AKP], clearly, is taken seriously by Israel as well as, of course, by the United States as possible evidence that the [AKP cabinet] may be taking a harder line -- perhaps because of its Islamist origins -- than previous Turkish governments," Aliriza said. "There is no evidence that it is in fact the case, but it is worth bearing in mind. The other thing is, of course, [that] at a time when Turkey is being invited to participate in the Greater Middle East Project by the United States, the current government -- and specifically Prime Minister [Erdogan] -- has referred to the Arab-Israeli dispute and recent Israeli actions as major impediments to the success of the project."
In comments made on 8 June before boarding a flight to the Sea Island G-8 summit, Erdogan said he believed solving the Arab-Israeli dispute and bringing the situation in Iraq under control were both prerequisites to implementing U.S. President George W. Bush's plans to reform the Middle East region.
Western leaders -- including supporters of the U.S.-led Iraq war -- have expressed similar concerns. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi this week described the Arab-Israeli conflict as "a problem that infects the Middle East."
Aliriza noted that Erdogan's stance does not differ from that of other world leaders. "It would be wrong to say there is a change in Turkish policy toward Israel per se, or to draw closer to the Arab world per se. But a distinction is being drawn [by Erdogan's cabinet] between the need to maintain a Turkish-Israel relationship and, at the same time, to oppose the policies of [Israeli] Prime Minister Sharon," Aliriza said. "And in that, Mr. Erdogan and his party are not alone. They are in synch with their country, as well as the global attitude towards Israel."
Officials in Ankara have indeed strived to make this distinction clear.
Last week, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Namik Tan insisted that Ankara intended to continue its traditional policy toward Israel.
While reiterating his criticism of Sharon's initiatives, Erdogan himself last week told Israel's "Haaretz" daily that, as far as his government is concerned, "ties between the people of Turkey and the people of Israel remain strong."
Turkey and Israel have been linked by a number of defense agreements since 1996. The two countries share similar security concerns, and have been regularly holding joint military exercises. Israeli defense firms have helped modernize the Turkish armed forces.
The Turkish government last month froze a number of lucrative defense tenders possibly involving Israeli companies. Citing budget constraints, Ankara has denied any possible connection between its decision and Erdogan's harsh statements against Israel.
Zvi Bar'el, a senior analyst for "Haaretz," said one cannot understand Erdogan's remarks without taking into consideration both the pro-Palestinian orientation of Turkish public opinion and the regional context.
"You have to understand the context of these comments. Turkey is a Muslim country divided between its good, or excellent, relationship with Israel and its geopolitical context. That means that it [also] has good relations with Iran, Syria, and Arab countries [in general]," Bar'el said. "Turkey is also trying to have its representative to the Organization of the Islamic Conference [elected secretary-general]. It is also trying to mobilize the support of Arab countries to eliminate sanctions imposed on [the] Turkish [Republic of Northern] Cyprus. So, at least politically, it has to contribute something to the political arena in which Israel and the Palestinians are taking part."
In an additional sign that the Turkish government is looking with mounting concern at developments in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Ankara this week decided to recall its two top diplomats to Israel for consultations.
Turkey's Anadolu news agency on 8 June quoted unidentified sources as saying that Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioglu and Consul-General Husein Avni Bicakli had been summoned to take part in "routine" discussions.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul last month had suggested Sinirlioglu could be recalled to examine possible ways of reviving the peace process.
"Haaretz" yesterday praised Turkey's efforts "to avoid unnecessarily harming [bilateral] relations" and said that the recall of the Turkish diplomats is viewed in Israel as having "little significance."
Ba'rel believes Erdogan's recent harsh remarks on the Rafah incursion are unlikely to have a lasting impact on bilateral ties.
"It is something that I think Israel had to expect, having conducted these kind of policies in the West Bank in the last few months," Ba'rel said. "I think Israel understands the seriousness of these remarks. I think it is impressed by them. At least, I hope the government is impressed. But it is not an earthquake. It is one of these moments when two friendly states are pointing to each other, saying: 'Come on, if we want to stay friends, we need to behave like [friends]."
How long will it take before bilateral relations return to normal remains unclear.
Aliriza said Ankara evoked the possibility of appointing a special Middle East envoy with the rank of ambassador and suggested that Bicakli, its consul-general in Jerusalem, be promoted to the rank of ambassador, leaving open the question of his possible accreditation to the Palestinian government.