Analysis / Turkey: A Friend for Trade

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan waited three months after his foreign minister returned from Israel before calling Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and setting the time for his visit here.

Erdogan arrives today, and it can be expected that Israel and Turkey will continue to maintain ties on two different tracks - economic and military on the one hand and political-diplomatic on the other hand.

From the economic-military perspective, life appears rosy as usual. The trade between the two states totals some $1.4 billion; Turkey is about to purchase some $183 million worth of Israeli drones; Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, who is arriving with Erdogan, intends to discuss purchasing Popeye and Arrow missiles.

Israeli tourists continue to flood Turkey, which would also like to see Russian gas for Israel being piped through it.

But, as far as Erdogan's Middle Eastern policy is concerned, Israel is seen as an external force at best and a hindrance at worst. Turkey and Syria are cooperating in economic security affairs - in mid-April the Turkish president visited Damascus in defiance of American pressure to cancel the visit. Turkey's relations with Iran are warming up due to joint interests regarding Iraq's future.

Turkish public opinion vis-a-vis the United States is not merely critical but at times hostile. Turkey does not consider its friendship with Israel as capable of influencing Turkey's acceptance process into the European Union. However, Turkey sees no contradiction between its strong economic-military ties with Israel and its sometimes blatant criticism of Israel (Erdogan called Israel's policy in the territories "state terrorism").

Turkey is trying to keep all its options open. For example, it is willing to cooperate with the U.S. in the defense force against Russia in the Caspian Sea region while at the same time purchasing from Russia a strategic product like gas. It wants to be a member of the European Union but refuses to yield to the demand to recognize the Armenian massacre in 1915 as genocide. Turkey needs American support to continue receiving World Bank assistance, but it slams American policy in Iraq and in the Middle East.

"Turkey still believes it is a power, at least a regional one," a Turkish official tells Haaretz. "But it keeps discovering that it is not desirable as a broker in regional conflicts, and finds other powers doing as they will in `Turkish' areas." Israel's relations with Turkey should be seen in this perspective, he says, noting that "Turkey is not expected to change its policy of keeping its options open following this visit."