Turkey is bolstering its military ties with Israel in a move many Turkish officials say is necessary to maintain the strategically important country's stability in a volatile region.
The effort involves a joint training agreement with the Israeli air force and navy, concluded in February. Turkey and Israel are also discussing weapons sales and the use of Israeli technology to police Turkey's porous borders, Turkish and Israeli officials say.The Turkish move comes amid signs of increasing tension between Turkey and its historically unfriendly and unstable neighbors. Turkey's relations with Iran and Greece have recently deteriorated. Ties with its Arab neighbors, Iraq and Syria, also continue to be strained.
In addition, Turkey and Israel are both non-Arab countries in a region populated mainly by Arabs, and both seek to orient themselves more toward Europe and the United States than toward their Arab neighbors.
In that light, Turkey's decision to pursue closer military ties with Israel has stirred controversy in the region and among Turkey's predominantly Muslim population.
Iran and Syria sharply criticized Turkey's move to allow Israeli air force pilots to train in Turkey's airspace - not least because one Turkish air base is situated in Konya, a center of Islam in Turkey.
Inside Turkey, this country's swing toward Israel comes as the nation, formed in 1923 by a pro-Western military commander, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is caught in a political struggle between those who believe it should maintain its secular, pro-Western course, and an increasingly powerful movement that backs a return to its Muslim roots and a rejection of its NATO membership and close partnership with the United States.
On May 18, an unemployed pharmacist who opposed the defense pact with Israel, Ibrahim Gumrukcuoglu, attempted to kill President Suleyman Demirel. While the assailant is believed to have acted alone, diplomats said his opposition to the deal reflects the political crisis embroiling Turkish society.
Gen. Cevik Bir, the deputy chief of the general staff, said Turkey concluded the agreement because "Turkey and Israel are the two democratic countries in the region, and we must show the region that democracies can work together."
Analysts, however, point to other reasons.
One senior Turkish diplomat bemoaned his homeland as "being damned by geography." Three of its neighbors - Iran, Iraq and Syria - are on the State Department's list of nations supporting terrorism. Ties with a fourth, Greece, are strained because of quarrels involving Aegean airspace, seabed rights and sovereignty over some Aegean islands close to the Turkish coast, and perennial tension over Cyprus. To the east, the countries of the formerly Soviet Caucasus region remain unpredictable.
In mid-January, Turkish police caught six large Iranian trucks packed with weapons in the southern town of Sanliurfa. Officials said the cache was bound for pro-Iranian Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and came at a time when Syria, responding to U.S. pressure, apparently had closed its airport to deliveries of Iranian guns.
Two months later, ties were strained further when a Turkish hit man implicated Iranian diplomats in ordering terrorist acts, including the slaying of a Turkish journalist. The two countries expelled a total of 12 diplomats.
In February, Turkey and Israel signed the military-training agreement; the change in Israeli governments brought on by last week's elections is not expected to alter the accord.
Initially, Turkish officials said the deal would be limited to allowing Israeli pilots to use Turkey's larger airspace to practice. But in an interview, Bir said joint naval maneuvers are also being considered.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, meanwhile, reported that Turkey would allow Israel to conduct electronic surveillance flights along Turkey's borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria. In exchange, it said, Israel would help Turkey secure its borders against infiltration by Kurdish separatist guerrillas.
Bir confirmed that the two nations are discussing the transfer of Israeli border-monitoring technology. But Omer Akbel, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, denied that Israeli warplanes would be allowed to snoop on Turkey's neighbors.
Weapons sales are another area the two nations are pursuing.
Turkey and Israel have reportedly been negotiating a $600 million deal under which Israel would refit Turkey's fleet of F-4 Phantom fighters with modern avionics.
An Israeli diplomat said Israel has been short-listed for a contract to replace the Turkish army's assault rifle, the German-made G3, with the Israeli-made Galil. Turkey has also flirted with the idea of buying Israeli-fitted KC-135 in-flight refueling aircraft.
The Israeli diplomat noted that unlike the United States, Israel attaches no human-rights conditions to its weapons sales. The U.S. Congress and the Clinton administration recently slowed several weapons deals because of concern about Turkey's human-rights record in its counterinsurgency campaign against Kurdish separatists in Turkey's southeast.
The blossoming of Turkish-Israeli defense ties does not mean, however, that Turkey has stopped dealing with Iran. Demirel, for example, visited Iran in April to celebrate the opening of the "Silk Road" railway linking Iran to the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan to its north.