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Eager for Closer Israel Ties, Turkey Turns Up the Charm

Top Turkish official visited Israel this week to boost ambitious, but complicated, alliance.

Long used to being treated like a pariah in the Middle East, Israel is coming to terms with a two-year charm offensive that has been led by Turkey's military establishment - and reciprocated by Israeli generals.

A day after Egyptian, Jordanian, and Palestinian leaders condemned Israel's right-wing government for blocking the peace process at a mini-summit in Cairo, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem arrived Monday in Israel - the latest in a string of high-level exchanges.

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But while both sides extol the benefits, the deepening relationship has also highlighted differences.

"Turkey used to downplay these ties, but in the past two years [it is] pulling Israel right into the open, to the point where it may be a little too much," says Yiftah Shapir, an analyst at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Turkey-Israel ties revolve around two security agreements signed in 1995 and 1996. Israel provides Turkey with high-tech military equipment, while Turkey provides Israeli pilots a vast training space and intelligence capability along borders with enemies Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

The alliance has been encouraged by the US - Israel's strongest backer, and a NATO ally with Turkey - but has caused anger in Arab states. Turkish and Israeli warships carried out a modest joint exercise in January.

At several stops in Israel, Mr. Cem sought to allay concerns that the alliance would adversely affect Israel's peace process with the Palestinians. He met with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat Wednesday.

But for Turkey, making friends with the Jewish state fits into a strategic realignment: Rebuffed by the European Union late last year, it is looking for alliances with other non-EU members.

"Both sides have strategic interests, but in Turkey they also serve political interests," says Mark Heller, an expert on regional security at the Jaffee Center. He notes that Turkey is the only Israeli friend that makes "more noise about it than Israel.

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"It is a signal of the military's predominant role in Turkish politics, and it is a way of saying to Europe that 'You are not our only option,' " Mr. Heller says.

Turkey felt insulted by the EU rejection of its decades-old application for membership, especially when Cyprus has been put on the fast track for membership. Turkish troops invaded the northern third of Cyprus in 1974, and the ethnic Turkish government there has followed Ankara's will, taking a hard line against reuniting Turkish-controlled areas with the Greek-led government of Cyprus.

But observers here say that Turkish ambitions for changing the Middle East may be too dogmatic, and do not take into account the current collapse of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

Turkish officials talk of their nation and Israel as the only democratic, "secular," and free-market states in the region, and reportedly envision a joint mission to mold Arab countries the same way - minimizing Islam's impact on governance.

ISRAELI analysts, however, say that they learned the difficulties of such a path four years ago, when then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called for a "new Middle East" based on peace, modernization, and integration.

"We believed in that," says Alon Liel, an expert on Turkey who was Israel's first charg d'affaires to Ankara in the 1970s. "But we learned the hard way that any doctrine coming from Jerusalem is by definition rejected [by the Arabs], even if it is good."

Turkey may fare no better, he says, and may not succeed at all if it includes Israel, unless there is real movement toward peace.

"If Israel really makes peace with Lebanon and Syria and the Palestinians, then there will be a great future with Turkey," Mr. Liel says. "But if we go the other way, I don't think Turkey will be able to completely disconnect the peace process from bilateral ties."

Still, relations are growing fast. Turkish sources say Ankara is building an air base in eastern Turkey exclusively for Israel's use. Turkish planes were recently in Israel on a secret mission that Israeli defense sources suggest could include training on how to avoid surface-to-air missiles, a constant threat for both, with Turkey fighting Kurdish PKK guerrillas and Israel fighting Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon.

There have been drawbacks. Israel is upgrading F-4 Phantom planes for Turkey, and wanted a similar contract with Turk rival Greece. Israel did not win it, however, in part because "every day the newspaper headlines shout about Turkey-Israel ties," says Mr. Shapir.

Turkey sees more opportunity in Russia, the former Soviet republics, Iran, and most Arab states. It bills itself as a primary pipeline route from the Caspian Sea to the rest of the world.

But if cracks appear in Turkish designs, some observers say, it may be because the possibilities overshadowed political realities.

"The problem with generals is they think like engineers," says another analyst here, who asked not to be named. "This map ... completely ignores emotional, psychological, or political considerations."

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