Israel Hits Back at Turkey Over Scuppered Air Force Drill

Turkey bans Israel from international air force drill; U.S. then withdraws, leading to cancellation of drill.

Turkey announced on Sunday the cancellation of an international air force drill at one of the country's air force bases, which was to include Israeli jets.

Foreign Ministry sources said that Turkish military officials had approached the Israel Defense Forces recently with a surprising demand that Israel refrain from participating in the drill, due to the IDF's activity in Gaza.

Israeli inquiries on the matter with the Turkish foreign ministry were met with evasive responses. Consequently, the U.S. and Italy withdrew their participation from the drill in protest, which led to the cancellation of the entire drill.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called Ankara's step "a blow to NATO, European and American interests," and suggested the United States and other NATO members approach Turkey over the exclusion.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been under pressure recently to exclude Israel from the drill, on the grounds that Israel should not be allowed to participate while its planes are bombing the Gaza Strip

In his response on Thursday, Ayalon played down the effects Turkey's decision might have on political relations between the two U.S. allies.

"Turkey has been and remains an important strategic anchor in the Middle East, and certainly its relations with Israel is something that serves the entire region," Ayalon told Israel Radio.

Turkey, a secular country ruled by an Islamic-oriented party, had long been Israel's best friend in the Muslim world. But ties have cooled sharply over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's sharp criticism of Israel's winter war in the Gaza Strip, especially in light of a televised fracas between President Shimon Peres and Erdogan at the Davos Conference this past January.

In light of the Turkish demands regarding the air force drill, Israel approached U.S. officials stressing that the unusual nature of the move, which violates the understandings regarding Israel's participation in NATO drills, like the drill in question.

Turkey adopted a critical stance on Israel and Erdogan maintained that Israel was carrying out genocide in the Gaza Strip. Since then, the two states have maintained diplomatic and military contacts but have not had any meetings between high-level officials.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's cancelled his visits to Israel recently after Israel denied his request to visit the Gaza Strip from Israeli territory.

Davutoglu had been invited to take part in the Presidents' Conference, which is scheduled to take place in a few weeks in Jerusalem.

Israeli officials' feared in regard to the visit is that if Davutoglu goes to Gaza, it will become a festive event for Hamas and it will become a media circus with the Turkish FM staying amidst the rubble of buildings destroyed by the IDF during Cast Lead. Officials suspected Davutoglu would also be encouraged to make anti-Israel statements.

Davutoglu was appointed foreign minister only recently, and has sought a role in future peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

A top Israel official said "Turkish leadership during Operation Cast Lead did not encourage us to agree to this request."