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Israeli air raid on Syria widens gulf with Turkey

Turkey's prime minister has described Israel as a 'spoiled child' and dubbed the attack as 'against international law'. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

ISTANBUL // The Israeli air strike in Syria has further complicated efforts to repair diplomatic relations between Turkey and its former partner, analysts say.

The raid on January 31 was the latest in a series of incidents since 2008 that have damaged the relationship between the countries.

Ankara is striking a fine balance in its dealings with the Muslim world and Israel, an important trade partner.

The attack inside Syrian territory put Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister and one of the harshest critics of Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, in the unusual position of coming out in defence of the Syrian regime.

Israel has indicated that its air force carried out last month's strike on what US officials have said was a convoy of anti-aircraft weapons bound for Hizbollah in Lebanon. Syria said a military research base was hit.

Mr Erdogan, describing Israel as a "spoiled child", said on Sunday that the attack was "against international law". He also accused Israel of waging "state terror".

Mr Erdogan's comments indicated that the chances of a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement in the near future are minimal, despite recent contacts behind the scenes that were aimed at finding a way out of a political stand-off that started with Israel's military intervention in Gaza in late 2008. The move prevented a possible breakthrough for Turkey's role as a mediator between Israel and Syria at the time, according to Mr Erdogan.

Relations went from bad to worse in 2010, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship carrying aid to the Gaza Strip in defiance of an Israeli blockade.

Mr Erdogan's government expelled Israel's ambassador, cancelled joint military exercises and reduced bilateral contacts to a minimum.

Turkey says relations can improve only if Israel apologises for the deaths of the activists, pays compensation to the victims' families and lifts the Gaza blockade.

Israel rejects these demands and argues its soldiers acted in self-defence when they were attacked by extremists on the deck of the ship.

In recent months, Turkish and Israeli officials have held confidential talks to resolve the diplomatic stalemate.

Last month, an Israeli foreign ministry official, Danny Ayalon, used an interview with the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper to float a proposal for an apology for the Mavi Marmara incident. He said Israel could offer its regret in a written form, similar to the apology the US government offered to Pakistan last year following the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a US air strike in 2011.

Serhat Erkmen, a political scientist at the Ahi Evran University in Kirsehir, western Turkey, and an expert on Israel, said this week that Turkey's conditions for a normalisation of ties were "not easily acceptable for Israel".

Another analyst, Mehmet Sahin of Ankara's Gazi University, said Turkey was unlikely to push for improved diplomatic relations as long as trade relations continued to flourish.

"There is no advantage for Turkey in that," he said.

Turkey was keen to keep trade insulated from the unsolved political problems with Israel, he added. Bilateral trade has recovered from a slump caused by the political tensions and the global economic crisis.

Turkish-Israeli trade dropped from US$3.4 billion (Dh12.5bn) in 2008 to $2.6bn in 2009, but figures hit a record of $4.4bn in 2011, and reached $3.3bn in the first 10 months of last year, according to the latest available figures from Turkey's trade ministry.

But the air strike on Syria may have served as a reminder to Turkey that close diplomatic ties with Israel carried the political risk of being held partly responsible for Israel's actions in the Middle East.

Mr Sahin said Israel was becoming increasingly isolated in the region and had shown with the attack in Syria that it is determined to act without any international restraint if it perceives its security is under threat.

"So if Turkey would be close to Israel again and something like this would happen, part of the criticism from the Islamic world would also be directed against Turkey," he added.

tseibert@thenational.ae

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