Turkey makes new Mid-East friends: Ankara is wooing Israel to counterbalance 'untrustworthy' Arab states on its south-eastern borders, writes Hugh Pope

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The Independent Online
'YOU are not going to believe this,' the commentator for Turkey's main Islamic paper told his readers in the tone once reserved by Western journalists reporting from the darker recesses of Iran, 'but today I am in Tel Aviv'.

The columnist, Fehmi Koru, overcame Muslim inhibitions to travel with the first Turkish foreign minister to visit Israel since 1948. But he was still surprised and somewhat dubious about how much further Turkish and Israeli officials seemed ready to go. 'They looked as though they had known each other for years . . . as only good, intimate friends can do.'

The Turks have indeed embraced the new, peace- with-the-PLO Israel. If it seems like an echo of an old Israeli policy of using the Middle Eastern periphery against the Arab centre, that is because the Turks now also quietly hope that a new Middle Eastern order may tilt the strategic balance against what they see as untrustworthy Arab states on their south-eastern border.

'Better late than never. We were wrong to turn our backs on Israel just to try to win the esteem of the Arabs,' said Gungor Mengi of the biggest- selling newspaper, Sabah. 'The situation in the Middle East has changed in a fundamental manner. Conditions are now ripe for better relations,' said Ferhat Ataman, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

While in Israel, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Hikmet Cetin, signed protocols on cultural exchanges, freer trade and defence industry co-operation. Turkey also plans to be ready by April for big sales to Israel of river water from its Mediterranean coastline. More discreetly, discussions were held on what Turkey officially calls 'terror': its continued suppression of a nine-year-old rebellion by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Turkish officials will only say there will be Israeli-Turkish 'co-operation' on this increasingly bloody feature of the strategic map, which the Kurdish guerrillas have vowed to turn into the next big Middle East battleground.

The officials denied that there were any Israelis training Turkish counter-insurgency forces yet. But they indicated that in principle the door was open for future discussion of the possibility. In northern Iraq as well, the security services of both states are at least on the same side, backing the moderate Kurdish leadership against President Saddam Hussein.

There are other telling parallels. Turkey might be well advised to look at Israel's deal with those Palestinians whom it was only recently condemning as terrorists, and see if any parts of it are applicable to moderate or even pro-PKK Turkish Kurds. There might still be time before an emerging Hamas- style Islamic Kurdish movement takes off.

Mr Cetin's visit was more a time for mutual discovery. Both countries share an important alliance with the United States, 200,000 Israeli tourists visit Turkey each year and about 25,000 Jews still live in Istanbul, the Ladino-speaking descendants of refugees from the Spanish Inquisition who were welcomed to Constantinople 500 years ago by the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey is also giving a dollars 2m ( pounds 1.3m) grant and a dollars 50m loan to the new Palestinian state. Israel can feel more comfortable that it is coming from a Muslim state with a relatively successful modernizing, democratic and above all secular model of government.

Ever the hobbled giant of Middle Eastern politics despite 400 years of Ottoman rule over the region, a population of 60 million and a dynamic economy, Turkey had carefully kept a low profile in its relations with Israel for years. It carefully tried to preserve a balance between complex and confused forces: diplomatic relations with the PLO and Israel were adjusted to ambassadorial level at the same time.

An anti-Israel lobby fed on Islamic-tinged prejudice against Jews, popular anger at Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and the need to preserve once lucrative trade with the Arab world. Pro-Israel sentiment was strengthened by a sense of mutual loneliness in the Middle East and a popular suspicion of Arabs since their perceived treacherous betrayal of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War under the likes of Lawrence of Arabia.

(Photograph omitted)