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Mideast Balance Of Power Shifts As an 'Axis' Is Born

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 1996


Israel and Turkey are moving to cement a de facto military alliance, one which indicates a significant strategic realignment in the Middle East.

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Their Arab neighbors worry that by improving military and intelligence ties the two countries are forming a new, American-backed regional coalition that may soon include Jordan as well.

Despite complications that have arisen with the recent coming to power in Turkey of Islamic leader

Necmettin Erbakan, this new "axis," as some Arab commentators have called it, has left the leaders of Syria, Iraq, and Iran anxious that its principal aim is to check their influence in the region.

The relationship - which was first revealed last February when a pact was signed allowing Israeli jet fighters to train in Turkish airspace - could only be made public because of Israel's peace deals with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. Partial success in the Mideast peace process, one analyst said, enabled the Turkish Army to "come out of the closet."

An agreement signed yesterday is expected to lead to a $650-million deal for Israel to overhaul 54 Turkish Phantom jets and install advanced radar and electronic-warfare navigation systems in Turkey.

Adding to the concerns of wary neighbors, a deal is expected to be signed that will allow the new allies to exchange technical know-how. It reportedly allows Israeli surveillance flights along Turkey's borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran in exchange for Israeli help in preventing cross-border raids by separatist Kurdish rebels.

Senior Turkish military officials say the deal will advance joint intelligence cooperation against Syria and Iran, even though political reconciliation is under way between Turkey's Islamist-led government and Iran, against the wishes of the United States. The Israeli media speak of "joint strategic assessments."

Though civilian Turkish officials try to play down the deals with the Jewish state as "routine," Israel admits that the budding relationship has strategic significance. Across the Arab world and Persia, it is seen as a threat.

"It's dangerous because the Jews want to extend their reach to other Muslim nations like Iraq, Iran, and Syria," says Moustafa Mashour, head of the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo.

The Tehran Times in Iran called it "another Zionist encroachment."

A New Middle East 'Peace' Coalition?

The most visible sign of the new Mideast "axis" was the meeting at Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, earlier this year, in which Arab and Israeli leaders - along with President Clinton - declared a joint fight against terrorism.

That meeting underscored the new alignment in the region: Syria, Iraq, and Iran were not invited.

"The new [Israel-Turkey-Jordan] axis is real, but not in a war situation," says an Israeli government official. "Jordan will not fight for Israel, and Israel will not fight for Turkey.

"But in terms of a political 'axis,' a 'peace axis,' this coalition exists."

What's in It For Israel?

For hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Turkey fits well into a policy of "triple containment," which adds Syria to the blacklist of Israeli enemies along with Iraq and Iran. The pact projects Israeli air power across Turkey to outflank Syria and to menace Iran's doorstep.

The United States, Israel's strongest ally, favors the deal. Jordan, which has embraced Israel enthusiastically since signing a peace deal in 1994, has indicated that it might play a role in the emerging "axis."

Though Israel's previous Labor government was deeply involved in talks with Syria to return the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967, Mr. Netanyahu so far has made it clear that he is not interested in withdrawing. But yesterday a senior Israel official, David Bar-Illan, said Netanyahu has not ruled out negotiations over the Golan.