by David Harris
JERUSALEM, Jan. 13 (Xinhua) -- Israel is concerned that for more than a year Turkey has been moving closer to Iran, an unnamed official in Israeli Prime Minister's Office told Xinhua on Wednesday.
However, some analysts argue that the deterioration of the bilateral relations is much of a result of Israel's military campaign in and around Gaza exactly one year ago and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, instead of the Iran element.
These comments came in the wake of the latest diplomatic row between Israel and Ankara over a TV program broadcast on a private Turkish channel that Israel deems to be anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli.
Israel's Foreign Ministry very publicly summoned and humiliated the Turkish Ambassador to Israel Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, leaving Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan fuming. Since the Gaza conflict, Erdogan has led the Turkish protests against Israel's actions.
Israel later offered Turkey an official apology over the treatment of its envoy.
CAUSE OF RIFT
The official in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who required remaining anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue, stressed that the move by Ankara towards Tehran began prior to the Gaza war.
Yet the idea that relations were in decline before the outbreak of fighting in Gaza is dismissed by Alon Liel, Israel's former ambassador to Turkey and a previous director general of the Foreign Ministry.
In his opinion, the years of 2007 and 2008 were amongst the best years in terms of relations between the two countries. Blaming the Turkish relationship with Iran for the ongoing spat with Israel is nonsense, he said.
"This idea that Turkey is heading in the Islamic or Iranian direction and away from Europe is simply avoiding the real picture, which is the damage to the bilateral relationship between Israel and Turkey," said Liel.
Yusuf Kanli, one of Turkey's most respected columnists and editors, adopts a similar view with Liel. He describes the Gaza war as "unfortunate" from the point of view of bilateral ties. While admitting there was a degree of strain prior to the war, he said the bond was largely very strong.
As far as Erdogan and most Turks are concerned, Israel behaved very badly in its military campaign in the Palestinian coastal enclave and that has pushed the diplomatic ties back many years.
Nominally, Turkey is a secular state, a position defended by its army. However, Erdogan's AKP or Justice and Development Party, with its Islamic roots, has been in control in Ankara since 2002.
While Turkey has been a member of the Organization of Islamic Conference since 1980, it only really became an active player, adopting and implementing its policies in 2002, Kanli said.
That eastwards move has created tension with Europe, with numerous countries, most notably France, unhappy with Turkey's bid for membership of the European Union.
"The Turkish move east is somewhat exaggerated but it is definitely not going west as it used to," said Kanli, who believes Turkey has a "multidimensional" foreign policy.
While in Liel's opinion, "Turkey is currently improving its relations with most countries in the world, apart from Israel."
Israel simply does not want to admit that Turkey is pressuring Israel to make progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he said.
Turkey, like Europe, the United States and the moderate Arab countries, wants to see the rebooting of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. In the past it has offered to broker talks between the parties.
Liel is a firm believer that relations with Ankara could be restored if Israel moves towards cutting a deal with the Palestinians. He has a simple piece of advice for Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who is slated to visit Turkey on Monday: "if you haven't got anything new to say about the peace process, don't go."
Kanli offers another perspective. He agrees with Erdogan that Israel was in the wrong in the way it carried out its military strike against Hamas, the Palestinian organization that controls Gaza. However, he thinks Ankara should not be engaging Hamas.
"The difference between the secularist Turk and the Islamist Turk is that I do think that Hamas is a terrorist organization and I would expect my government to have relations with Hamas only after it renounces terrorism," said Kanli.
It is not only the Palestinian track that interests Ankara. A peace deal between Israel and Syria would also benefit Turkey. While Ehud Olmert was Israeli prime minister immediately before Netanyahu, Syria's neighbor Turkey was facilitating indirect talks between Israel and Damascus. Those talks broke down just before the Gaza war.
Since then, Ankara has offered to resume its negotiating role, but Netanyahu has rejected that idea, arguing the hostility towards Israel from Turkey means it cannot be an honest broker.
The iciness between the countries has already had economic effects with many Israelis now choosing to stay away from Turkey, which was in recent years their tourist destination of choice. While the business community reports relations largely intact thus far, there is a fear this could change.
For all of their arguments, Turkey and Israel have much in common. They are both countries with strong ties with the West and the United States in particular. The two are very active within NATO, participating in joint military exercises. They have both been hit by terrorism and both see themselves as a bridge between East and West.
Yet the events of the past year, culminating in this week's war of words, have left a bitter taste both in Israel and in Ankara.
Barak will try to mend some of the fence, as did another Israeli minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, when he visited Turkey in November.
However, Liel warns that without a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, such visits will achieve next to nothing. "There's definitely cause for concern about the future of relations with Turkey," said Liel.