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Turkey: Israel's Sharon Suffers Diplomatic Blow

Prague, 9 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The least one can say about Ariel Sharon's visit to Ankara yesterday (8 August) is that it took an unexpected and unpleasant turn for the Israeli prime minister.

"Sharon gets severely reprimanded," read today's headline of Turkey's "Sabah" mass-circulation daily.

Indeed, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit strongly criticized Sharon's right-wing cabinet for demanding a total halt to violence as a condition for resuming talks with the Palestinians.

Ecevit said that, in his view, such demands were "unrealistic." He also urged his Israeli counterpart to revive the Middle East peace process in an effort to end the 10-month-old conflict that has killed almost 700 people, mostly Palestinians.

On a highly unusual, non-diplomatic note, the Turkish prime minister also made clear that he did not believe Sharon's claims that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should be blamed for recent terrorist attacks against Israeli targets.

"I cannot think of any statesman or a politician who would support terror," Ecevit told a press conference as Sharon sat by, before calling upon his host to accept international observers in the conflict zone and lift an embargo on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The Turkish prime minister also said his country was ready to host peace talks if they were to resume.

Ignoring Turkey's warning, Sharon said there could be no dialogue with the Palestinians until the violence stops.

Talking to reporters later in the day, Sharon tried to downplay Ecevit's public scolding, describing the meeting he had with his Turkish counterpart as "warm." Israel's English-language "Jerusalem Post" daily quoted him as saying that the disagreement between Ankara and Tel Aviv was "healthy" and that there was not the slightest sign of conflict between the two capitals.

Sharon's comments contradicted some Turkish media reports, which described the atmosphere of the talks as "strained."

In any case, Ecevit's blunt comments further illustrates the deteriorating relations between Sharon's government and the international community. Even the United States, Israel's main ally in the West, has criticized Sharon for the recent assassinations of suspected Palestinian terrorists.

Commentators in Turkey generally interpreted Ecevit's tough stand as a gesture toward Iran and Ankara's Arab neighbors.

Although Turkey maintains full diplomatic ties with the Palestinians and supports their demand for statehood, it is Israel's traditional and only supporter in the Middle East.

Five years ago, both countries signed a military cooperation agreement that sparked criticism from most Arab countries and Iran. Both countries regularly hold joint military exercises and Israel is currently modernizing Turkish jet fighters under a $700 million contract.

Israeli chief of staff Shaul Mofaz held military cooperation talks in Ankara last month (27 July), days after Israel's Defense Minister Benyamin Ben Eliezer paid a visit to the Turkish capital.

Relations between Ankara and most Arab capitals deteriorated during the 1991 Gulf War. As a NATO member, Turkey was the first regional country to join the U.S.-led international coalition to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

But Ankara is now steadily moving toward rebuilding economic and political ties with its Arab neighbors and with Iran, another country which is critical of Turkey's military cooperation with Israel.

Officials in the Iraqi capital Baghdad have not reacted to Sharon's visit to Ankara. But Syria, Israel's arch-rival in the region, has issued a clear warning to its Turkish neighbor. In a statement published yesterday (8 August) in the official "Al-Baath" daily, the Baath ruling party urged Ankara not to jeopardize its interests in the Arab world by supporting Israel's current "no-talk" policy toward the Palestinians.

Sharon's visit to Ankara triggered some controversy in Turkey itself, notably among left-wing political parties and Islamic groups.

Police detained some 50 anti-Israel demonstrators in Istanbul yesterday. Trade unionists and left-wing protestors staged a separate demonstration in Ankara to express their support for the Palestinians. On 7 August, riot police detained some 130 Islamist protestors in both cities.

It remains unclear whether the Israeli prime minister -- who also met with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and State Minister Kemal Dervis -- attained any concrete results during his visit.

During the press conference they held yesterday, neither Ecevit nor Sharon commented on the defense cooperation between their countries. CNN-Turk private television channel reported that Turkey agreed in principle for Israel to modernize 1,000 of its tanks. But details of the deal remain to be finalized.