Olmert heads to Ankara for meetings with Turkish leaders

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert heads to Turkey this week, where he will ask Israel’s closest Muslim ally to help in the international effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program, officials said. Olmert also could come under pressure to make peaceful gestures toward Syria and the Palestinians, and to halt construction near a disputed holy site in Jerusalem.

Turkey’s Islamic government has good relations with both Syria and Hamas, the militant group that currently leads the Palestinian government, and also with Iran, with whom it shares a long border.

Israel has refrained from having direct contact with Hamas, which it regards as a terror group, until it renounces violence, recognizes Israel’s right to exist and accepts all prior agreements with it.

Following last week’s agreement by Hamas to join a national unity government with the more moderate Fatah, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Turkey will likely press Olmert to work with the new government, said Alon Liel, an expert in Israel-Turkey relations.

“I think he (Olmert) will be under double pressure. If he says no to everything, it will be a difficult visit,” said Liel, who worked as a senior Israeli diplomat in Ankara between 1981-83.

The platform of the unity government, reached last week in Mecca, is more moderate than the previous one led by Hamas. But it appears to fall short of Western demands, and Olmert has said he will wait until the new government takes office before deciding whether to deal with it.

Turkey is also interested in promoting peace talks between Israel and Syria, another neighbor. Olmert has rejected gestures from Syria to open talks with President Bashar Assad, citing Damascus’ support for anti-Israel militant groups in the region.

“We are very much in favor of any Turkish initiative that could strengthen the moderate Muslim forces in the region,” said Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin. “But we think that the present Syrian government is only interested in a peace process and not peace.”

Olmert is set to arrive Wednesday. He is scheduled to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer the following day before returning to Israel.

Eisin said the Iranian nuclear threat would top Olmert’s agenda, as it has most of his recent trips overseas. Israel hopes Turkey would be able to exert its influence over its Shiite neighbor.

“As a moderate Muslim, Sunni country, they have a very important role in the Middle East,” Eisin said.

Israel believes Iran is pursuing a nuclear bomb. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful.

Liel said it was unlikely Turkey would confront Iran, on which it is dependent for gas, especially if Israel does not make any gestures on the Syrian or Palestinian front.

On Tuesday, Erdogan criticized Israel for construction in Jerusalem near the hilltop known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The project has sparked days of violent Palestinian protests and objections from the Muslim world, and Erdogan said he would bring up the issue with Olmert during the visit.

Turkey is one of Israel’s few friends in the Muslim world, and the two have close economic and military ties.

But relations have soured considerably since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which has roots in Turkey’s Islamic movement, came to power in November 2002.

Many in his party are critical of ties with Israel. In 2004, after Israel killed two top Hamas leaders, Erdogan termed the Israeli policies “state terrorism.” Erdogan also irked Israeli leaders last year by inviting a delegation of Hamas leaders to Turkey following the militant group’s victory in Palestinian elections.

Turkey, who strives for more regional influence, has often tried to position itself as a go-between Israel and its adversaries in the Arab world.

Political disagreements have little no impact on bilateral trade. Israel imports hundreds of millions of dollars of Turkish goods, including cars and textiles, each year, while it exports electronics and high-tech products to Turkey.

Turkey has bought billions more worth of Israeli weapons since the countries signed a security cooperation agreement in 1996, though there hasn’t been a large-scale deal in close to seven years, Liel said.

Turkey is also a top foreign vacation destination, visited by some 400,000 Israelis a year.

Other issues likely to come up in the meeting are a potential oil and gas pipelines deal, and Turkey’s involvement in the construction of the Erez industrial park in the northern Gaza Strip. Turkey hopes the project will stimulate the Palestinian economy after Israel’s Gaza withdrawal in 2005.

“Olmert’s visit could be an opportunity to discuss ways to boost bilateral trade, speeding up the Erez project and further cooperation in the defense field,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst with the Economic Policy Research Institute in Ankara. “However, Israel could signal to the Turkish government not to be involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too much given Israel’s concerns over the Turkish government’s ties with Hamas.”

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