Even the Best of Friends

"The tanks deal is an open wound," said the deputy chairman of Turkey's Islamist Justice and Development Party, Abdullah Gul. He was referring to Ankara's decision to have tanks upgraded in Israel in a $700 million deal.

"The tanks deal is an open wound," said the deputy chairman of Turkey's Islamist Justice and Development Party, Abdullah Gul. He was referring to Ankara's decision to have tanks upgraded in Israel in a $700 million deal.

Aside from competition against American firms, the deal was held up by heavy pressure that Arab countries exerted on Turkey. In normal times they know they have no chance of influencing the relations between Israel and its best friend in the Middle East. This time, Gul said, "giving the contract to Israel means Turkish support for Israeli aggression."

Gul, a former state minister for foreign affairs, is not a lone voice in the Turkish political arena, where the war in the territories has produced a distinctly uneasy atmosphere. Mesout Yilmaz, chairman of the Homeland Party, which is a member of the ruling coalition, used language that was unusually sharp in criticizing Israel. "Turkey will not throw its relations with Israel into the refuse bin," he said, "but neither will it close its eyes to the `hard treatment' the Palestinians are receiving."

And the prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, went as far as to talk about "genocide." Demonstrations continued last week in Ankara with the participation of the leaders of the trade unions and members of the chambers of commerce. The joint military maneuvers involving Israel, Turkey and the United States, which had been scheduled for the end of April, have been postponed indefinitely, and one Turkish paper ran an editorial under the headline "Adolf Sharon."

The reports in the Turkish media do not spare Israel's friends in Turkey the harshest images from the territories, and every day new groups join the list of those that are demanding action by the government. "Turkey usually pursues an independent policy toward Israel, and you know what meager influence the Arab states have in Ankara," says a senior Turkish official.

"But with Turkey waging a struggle for admission to the European Union and maintaining extensive commercial relations with Iraq and full diplomatic relations with Iran, it is obliged, at least at the declarative level, to join the line that is against the Israeli army's operations in the territories."

The word "declaratively" is no consolation, because even if the diplomatic dialogue is being conducted in low tones, and even if Turkey, despite the pressure, is not canceling the deal with Israel, the Turkish street is a powerful voice. "On the face of it, a new balance of terror has been created, which is more convenient for Turkey," the senior official says.

"In this balance, as long as the war between Israel and the Palestinians continues, there is less chance of an American war against Iraq, which is opposed by Turkey. But you should take note of the influence that the war with the Palestinians is liable to have on the relations between the people of Turkey - not only the government of Turkey - and Israel."

Relations between Turkey and Israel are unique even between friendly countries. They can be described as "cordial ties," which were created from below, between the Israeli and Turkish publics, and developed into the close formal relations that now exist. Turkey is not only the sole Middle Eastern country in which an Israeli can feel safer than he can at home, and the only European country in which an Israeli tourist doesn't have to keep his identity a secret - it is the only Muslim country in the world that takes pride in its relations with Israel.

When television announcers in Egypt adopt the term "Zionazism," and voices in Jordan talk openly about the "level of decline" in relations with Israel, Turkey, even if gritting its teeth, is continuing to do business as usual.

Turkey's good relations are not with Sharon and his government, but with Israel and its people, Ilnut Cevik wrote in the Turkish Daily News. "Governments come and go, but the people and true friendship remain."

Cevik and his colleagues will have to work a little harder if they discover, eventually, that there is no difference between Sharon and his policy and the "people." The deal to upgrade the tanks may not be canceled even then, but it's possible the Israeli public could still lose its best friend.