'In Turkey, They Call Me Ahmet the Israeli'

The chairman of Turkey's Yilmazlar construction firm says his company is an innocent victim of the Turkish-Israeli dispute.

Ahmet Reyiz Yilmaz loves Israel.

"I've worked in Israel half my life," said the chairman of Yilmazlar, the large Turkish construction company that is the only Turkish firm with a permit to operate here. "I have an apartment in Israel and my children sing songs in Hebrew."

turkey - Reuters - July 17 2011

He also sponsors the Hapoel Abu Gosh-Mevasseret Zion soccer team.

"I don't need a kashrut certificate from anyone to prove I love Israel," he said.

Now Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wants to revoke the work permits of the company's 800 construction workers. Yilmaz says he and his company are being victimized because of the bad blood between Israel and Turkey over the past two years.

"You know what they call me in Turkey? Ahmet the Israeli," he said. "And here they are attacking me for being anti-Israel. It's absurd."

During the 17 years Yilmazlar has been operating in Israel, it has built residential projects and numerous public buildings, including the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv's Kirya, parts of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and new wings at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem.

The firm obtained the contracts and the work permits under a defense agreement with Turkey, under which Israel refurbishes Turkish tanks and in return allows Turkish construction workers to work in Israel.

Last year, an Israeli court suspended payments to Yilmazlar while the company was working out a financial dispute with the Mashab construction company. Yilmaz says his company was being targeted due to Turkey's involvement in last year's flotilla to the Gaza Strip.

The legal issues were resolved, but criticism of Yilmaz continued, particularly after he set up a right-wing party in Turkey, MMP - which he now says he has quit "because I found out that politics doesn't interest me." Nevertheless, the party still lists him as its president, and it issued a statement yesterday saying that "Lieberman the fascist has made Yilmaz his next target."

"I oppose [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's polices and believe it is forbidden to conduct a dialogue with Hamas," Yilmaz said. "Hamas is a terror organization, and no one understands better than me how much Israelis suffered from Hamas terror."