WikiLeaks reveals depth of Israel's rift with Turkey

Until WikiLeaks revealed otherwise this week, Israeli officials had insisted that the two countries remained regional partners. Now they're speaking more openly about a shift toward Turkey's rival, Greece.

By , McClatchy Newspapers

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    The cables, released by the WikiLeaks website, portray Israel as convinced that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is anti-Israel, and indicate that the US Embassy in Ankara, the Turkish capital, essentially agrees. Erdogan demanded Wednesday that the US issue an apology.
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Newly divulged State Department cables confirmed this week what Middle Eastern diplomats have been whispering for some time: that Israel's long-touted partnership with Turkey is effectively broken.

The cables, released by the WikiLeaks website, help set the context for a major shift by Israel, which for the past two years has quietly intensified its military cooperation with Turkey's neighbor and rival, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries.

The deterioration of once-close ties between Turkey, a secular Muslim country, and Israel, an avowedly Jewish nation – both close American allies – has significant implications for the US in the Middle East, and even on US efforts to press Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment program.

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The cables portray Israel as convinced that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is anti-Israel, and indicate that the US Embassy in Ankara, the Turkish capital, essentially agrees.

In a secret cable sent Oct. 26, 2009, then-US Ambassador James F. Jeffrey relayed the assessment of Gabby Levy, Israel's ambassador to Turkey, that Erdogan is "a fundamentalist" and "hates us religiously." Jeffrey commented that US discussions with contacts inside and outside the Turkish government confirm the Israeli thesis that Erdogan "simply hates Israel."

Turkey's Erdogan demands an apology

Erdogan responded to the accusations in these and other cables – some of which raised questions about his sources of income and private overseas bank accounts – and demanded Wednesday that the US issue an apology.

"The US is responsible in first degree for the slanders its diplomats make with their incorrect interpretations," Erdogan said. "There are lies and incorrect information in those documents."

The cables tell only part of the story of the growing distance between Israel and Turkey.

Until now, Israeli officials have insisted in public that the two countries remain regional partners, especially in light of their military cooperation. Now they say that as early as 2008, Israel's military has pursued other partners for joint aerial and naval exercises. These include Greece, first and foremost, as well as other countries in the Mediterranean.

"It is true that we cannot hold the type of exercises with Turkey we once did," said a high-ranking official in Israel's navy, who spoke with McClatchy only on the condition of anonymity in keeping with the military's policy on news media interviews. "In the days of better relations we held a number of exercises in Turkish waters and in their airspace."

A 'boom' in Israel-Greece military relations

Because of its limited airspace, Israel has constantly sought close ties with countries with which it can hold training exercises. Israeli aerial exercises over Turkey have long been viewed as dry runs for a potential strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, and joint naval exercises off the coast of Turkey have allowed Israel to practice refueling and communication drills.

Israel is now turning to a number of countries, including Greece, to hold new joint drills.

A Greek training official, who described himself as "in charge of new purchases and new recruits" in Athens, told McClatchy last month that there has been a "boom" in military relations between Israel and Greece.

"We have similar goals, similar problems and similar enemies," he said. "We find ourselves working very well together."

The official, who was on a weeklong trip to Israel, wasn't cleared to speak to the media and would discuss his trip only anonymously. He said he expected a large bilateral exercise to be announced within the year and that he was involved in investigating the purchase of unmanned aerial vehicles from Israel.

In late July, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou visited Israel, and less than a month later Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to make a state visit to Athens.

During his two-day stay, Mr. Netanyahu said the two nations were "opening a new chapter" and that he and Mr. Papandreou had discussed military cooperation.

The Israeli navy official said that in the past year, Israel expanded its relations with a number of other Balkan nations, including Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia.

Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, told McClatchy there was increased concern in the Israeli leadership about what he said was Turkey's "new radicalism" and "the influence of fundamentalist Islamist groups in Turkey."

"There has been a long-standing trend here that we are now seeing come to fruition," he said. The Turkish government has denied repeatedly that it supports radical Islam or is influenced by fundamentalist Islamist groups.

How Turkey-Israel relations went awry

The relationship between Israel and Turkey dates to 1949, when Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the new State of Israel. Turkey was once considered Israel's closest ally in the region.

The two countries staged regular joint military drills and maintained open lines of communication between the various divisions of their armed forces. They signed a landmark military cooperation deal in 1996, in which Israeli companies awarded $700 million in contracts to modernize Turkish military equipment.

Relations deteriorated severely when Israel launched an offensive on the Gaza Strip two years ago. They received an additional blow in January, when Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon gave Turkey's envoy to Israel a public dressing-down.

A few months later, the crisis in relations reached a head when Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turkish civilians who were part of a flotilla that was attempting to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel, and Erdogan has charged Israel with "state terrorism."

"The future of ties with Israel will depend on the attitude of Israel," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.

Since then, Turkey has canceled several joint military drills with Israel, and no future exercises have been planned.

The US, meanwhile, has appeared increasingly concerned about Turkey's shifting politics for years. In a Dec. 12, 2004, cable, former U.S. Ambassador in Ankara Eric Edelman wrote that Erdogan, who'd recently become prime minister, had "Islamist tendencies." The cable also spoke of Erdogan's "susceptibility to Islamist theories."

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