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Citing 'Threat' of Islam, Turk Army Gets Bolder


With many Arab eyes watching them, the Jewish state of Israel and the predominantly Muslim nation of Turkey ratcheted up their new military ties this week.

The two Mideast neighbors - one a NATO member, the other living closely under America's wing - decided to hold joint naval maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean. US naval forces will take part, too.

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This budding alliance has altered the strategic power balance in the oil-rich Mideast - to Israel's favor.

But the decision to hold the military exercises has raised a basic question: Who is really running Turkey, a prospective member of the European Union in addition to being a NATO ally?

Turkish politics have been on shaky ground for months. A pro-Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, is locked in a struggle with secular military leaders who want to curb the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Turkey.

The joint maneuvers, announced this week during the visit to Israel by Turkish Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Cevic Bir, has provoked angry reaction from the Arab League and notably from Syria and Iran.

It also signals the accelerating influence of Turkish commanders, often referred to as "the Generals," in political affairs - particularly in foreign policy.

Mr. Erbakan was strongly anti-Israel before he came to power and formed a coalition government with current Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller's center-right True Path Party 10 months ago.

He has frequently demonstrated sympathy for the Arabs' desire to shift Turkey's traditionally pro-Western foreign policy toward the Islamic world.

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Yet the embattled premier has reluctantly agreed to pursue a new policy of cooperation with Israel. That has rankled some in his own Islamist circles, who question the silence of their usually fiery leader.

The relationship with Israel has been developing for some time. Erbakan has approved two military agreements with Israel. He led parliament to ratify an economic agreement made last year. And he approved last year's $630 million project for Israel to modernize Turkish jets.

But moves by the military have grown bolder. In March, the commander of the general staff, Gen. Ismail H. Karadayi, indicated a surprising openness toward the idea of reconciliation with long-time enemy Greece at a Greek Embassy reception.

Last week, senior military officers held an unusual briefing for the press to announce a new "strategic concept" for the Turkish armed forces.

They said Turkey faced not only security problems from outside its borders but also "threats" from the inside. They named two major dangers: terrorism (connected with Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey) and Islamic fundamentalism.

And they cited Iran and Syria as the two countries having "links" with local groups involved in such activities.

Military and security authorities in Turkey see Israel as a partner to upgrade Turkey's arsenal, and have established an exchange of intelligence. Senior officers also say Turkey is turning now to Israel to procure weapons it is unable to get from the US.

The military's new move has support within Turkey. "The Arabs may resent us for making such an alliance ... but they are the ones who caused security problems for us and led us to establish such a common front," says Seyfi Tashan, director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara.

Some Turkish analysts fear that Turkey might be going too far, too soon in its relationship with Israel.

Mensur Akgun, a political analyst writing in the Istanbul daily Yeni Yuzyil, says: "We should not forget that our relations with the Arab and Islamic world have an importance, too. We cannot ignore their reaction. Such an attitude cannot serve our long-term interests in the region."

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