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Turkey and Israel thrive as allies

The two countries have economic and military dealings. And Jewish residents say there are no problems living in mostly Muslim Turkey.

[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Viktor Cemal moves a Torah used at the synagogue in Antakya, Turkey. The Torah is more than 200 years old.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 20, 2003


ANTAKYA, Turkey -- Viktor Cemal, a Jewish resident of this largely Muslim city, is proud to show off the little Jewish graveyard where his grandparents are buried. It is attractively landscaped and has an expensive new fence and gate, paid for by the city.

"They take very good care of us," Cemal says of city officials. "People here like us very much -- there are no problems."

The friendly relations between Jews and Muslims in Antakya reflect one of the most unusual and important alliances in the Middle East -- the close bond between Israel and Turkey. To the delight of the United States and the dismay of their Arab neighbors, the small Jewish state and the big Muslim nation have forged a durable partnership in a notoriously unstable region.

More than 300,000 Israelis a year vacation in Turkey, bolstering the country's vital tourism industry. Drought-plagued Israel has agreed to buy water from Turkey, and the Turkish military chose Israeli firms to upgrade its tanks and fighter jets. Turkey's biggest supporter in Washington is the American Jewish lobby.

"The two countries have the same enemies and the same friends," says Barry Rubin, an expert on the region. "They're both threatened by radical regimes, notably Iran, Syria and Iraq. They both have similar systems as democratic states. Both have to deal with terrorism. They're both distinctive in the region because they are not Arab states and to some degree are excluded from the region. So there are a lot of common interests and concerns."

With the Mideast in even more turmoil than usual, the Turkish-Israeli friendship faces its toughest test to date. Turks overwhelmingly oppose war with Iraq, which many see as a U.S-Israeli conspiracy to control the region and its oil. In Istanbul and other Turkish cities, demonstrators have burned Israeli flags to protest both war and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Moreover, the recent rise to power of an Islamist party in Turkey raises a nagging question: Will Turkey turn away from Israel and the West and hew more to the Muslim world? Turkey's new leader did little to allay concerns when he called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a terrorist.

While some factors threaten to pull Turkey and Israel apart, many others continue to push them together.

[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Saul Cemal, one of about 70 Jews still living in Antakya, visits the Jewish cemetery where several friends and family members are buried. "They take very good care of us," Cemal says of city officials.

"My feeling is that the basic ties haven't been severed, the basic cooperation is the same," says Morton Abramowitz, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. "But I think the atmosphere has changed."

The legacy of Jewish-Muslim coexistence dates to 1492 when Jews in Spain fled the Inquisition and found a welcome in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Most of Turkey's 70-million people are Muslim, but the modern Turkish republic was founded in 1923 as a secular nation with strict separation of government and religion.

In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the new state of Israel. Relations bloomed as the two cooperated in gathering intelligence on mutual enemies, especially neighboring Syria.

Both countries have accused Syria of supporting terrorist groups. Among them: Hezbollah and Hamas, responsible for dozens of attacks against Israel, and the PKK, a guerrilla group that fought for an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey.

In 1998, war nearly erupted when Turkey threatened to invade Syria unless it turned over PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, then hiding in Damascus. Ocalan fled the country, only to be nabbed in Kenya a few months later in a raid that many thought smacked of a classic Israeli operation.

Under a 1996 defense agreement, Turkey and Israel also have established close military ties. Israeli fighter pilots, who can fly the length of their compact country in less than a minute, conduct training missions four times a year over Turkey, a nation slightly larger than Texas.

When Congress balked at selling arms to Turkey in the mid '90s because of its poor human rights record, Israel agreed to help modernize Turkey's military under lucrative, multiyear contracts. Turkish, Israeli and U.S. forces routinely hold joint exercises in the Mediterranean, most recently last month.

Civilian trade between Israel and Turkey has soared, too, from just $90-million a decade ago to $1.3-billion in 2001.

"There's a synergy -- the economies match up for trade," says Rubin, director of the Israel-based Global Research and International Affairs Center. "Turkey has water, textiles, basic manufactured goods. Israel has high tech and other things."

The Turkish-Israeli friendship has been endorsed by American Jews, who have provided a counterweight in Washington to longtime Greek and Armenian enmity toward Turkey. Greece and Turkey are still wrangling over the island of Cyprus, and Armenians are still demanding an apology from Turkey for the deaths of more than 1-million Christian Armenians in 1915 during the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

In 2000, American Jewish groups joined Turkey in successfully lobbying Congress to quash a resolution commemorating the Armenian massacre. But relations soured briefly last spring when Turkey's then-prime minister called Israel's actions against the Palestinians "genocide." He quickly apologized for the "misunderstanding" and said, "We attach great importance to our relations with Israel."

Now Israel and American Jews wait to see whether Turkey's new Islamist ruling party, headed by former Istanbul Mayor Recip Tayyip Erdogan, will stay the course that has been so beneficial to both countries.

Erdogan once accused Israel's Sharon of creating a "climate in which terrorism has grown." But the Turkish-Israeli relationship was not an issue in last fall's Turkish elections and Erdogan, due to become prime minister next month, has said little about Israel since his controversial remark.

Israelis were heartened when Turkey's interim prime minister, flying over Israel last month on his way to discuss Iraq with Arab leaders, radioed down his condolences over a recent suicide bombing.

Given the current state of the Middle East, it is unlikely that any Turkish government would turn its back on Israel and the United States.

"The question as they look around is who can they depend on, who can they ally with, who are they going to see as a threat," Rubin says. "It's not like any Arab country is offering them anything terrific. The Saudis aren't going to give them billions of dollars in aid."

Like Israel, Turkey sees itself as more European than Middle Eastern. The European Union has yet to consider Turkey's request for admission, largely because of its human rights record. But Turks note that while many anti-Semitic incidents have occurred in France and other EU countries, Turkey has seen almost none.

"Many years ago there were some problems, but nothing now -- now it is very free," says Cemal, a Jew who employs many Muslims in his textile factory here.

Turkey lost many of its Jews when they moved to the new state of Israel in 1948. Today, the biggest group -- about 25,000 -- is in Istanbul. In Antakya, a city of 140,000 on the eastern Mediterranean coast, the Jewish community has shrunk to just 70.

Better known in the West as Antioch, the city has one small synagogue, entered through a courtyard redolent with the scent of orange and lemon blossoms. The only rabbi left is 87; on major holidays, religious leaders come from Istanbul, 800 miles away.

With so few of their own faith, Cemal and other Jews socialize with Muslims. They attend each others' birthdays, funerals, even religious festivals. But Cemal says his Muslim Turkish friends rarely mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"They know they are not in a position to affect Israel. Nobody says any bad words or shouts at us, nobody criticizes us about anything."

-- Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com .

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