The visit of the Israeli deputy prime minister to Ankara last week came as a respite for the tension that has been simmering over the last couple of months between Israel and Turkey. Whilst officials have long tried to talk down the gravity of friction over Palestine, the visit was nonetheless intended to patch up and reconfirm old ties. However, the question is whether recent tensions mark a broader trend in otherwise close bilateral political relations.
Indeed, whilst positive, Turkey's reception of Ehud Olmert was marked by the notable absence of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose increasingly critical remarks regarding the treatment of Palestinians have reverberated throughout Israel. Schedule problems, according to Turkish authorities, had made the meeting impossible. But sceptics wondered whether the Turkish prime minister intended to appear in the first place. Whatever the speculation, Olmert's interpretation was clear. "The president and foreign minister are meeting with me: therefore, I don't think I am being punished," he said.
Yet there has certainly been a bitter aftertaste from the verbal sparring that has occurred between the Turkish prime minister and Israeli authorities since June 2004. Finger wagging over Israeli incursions into the West Bank and Gaza strip combined with related accusations by Erdogan of Israeli "state terrorism" triggered a frosty response from the Israelis. At the end of June, Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, claimed that his country would not "restrain" itself for much longer in view of such criticism.
In a similar vein, the Israeli deputy prime minister asserted that militant Palestinians pose a greater - if not closer - threat to the Israeli people than do Kurdish rebels to Turkey. Although downplayed by political authorities, such comments have taken their toll on political relations.
Analysts in the meantime have attempted to explain the motivations for Erdogan's outspoken attitude towards Ariel Sharon's government. A genuine distaste, shared by millions of Turks, for the policies of the Israeli prime minister has undoubtedly played a large part. Others see Erdogan's stance as an attempt to appease the conservatives in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Many such members have remained concerned by the government's inability to lift the ban on headscarves in schools and government offices. Scoring points on the international front could diffuse domestic frustrations amongst the conservative elite, or those who more closely associate with the party's Islamist roots.
Meanwhile, the AKP government has long hankered after a better relationship with the Arab world than previous Turkish governments have had. Partly this is because it sees itself as playing a significant regional role in the years to come, and partly this is because of the enormous potential such ties bring economically. Yet pursuing such Arab-friendly policies naturally jars with being seen too close to Israel. Notably, while Olmert was not meeting Erdogan, Syrian officials were.
But a more immediate cause is likely to have been a recent article published by the New Yorker magazine, claiming that Israeli agents now train Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq. An independent Kurdish state could provide Israel with a new ally in the region whilst dividing an otherwise united, and potentially hostile, Iraq. This claim nevertheless is one that Israel vehemently denies. And no wonder too, given Turkey's long-held sensitivity to Kurdish separatism following its struggle with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Such rumours also conflict with Israel's broader interests, given the importance of Turkey as a regional and long-standing ally.
Whether these tensions mark a broader trend in bilateral ties is an open question. Soner Cagaptay, an expert from the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, claims that the foundations of the Turkish-Israeli relationship are eroding.
"It's too early to be alarmist, but I would say that the relationship is under a serious challenge," he claimed in a recent interview with the Associated Press.
Yet Turkish-Israeli relations are anchored by a tradition of strong military ties, which, given their mutual security concerns, are unlikely to be derailed in the short-term. Common fears regarding ballistic missile proliferation programmes in the Arab world coupled with Islamic militancy remains at large. Seeing themselves as the guarantors of the country's security, Turkey's staunchly secularist generals regard relations with Israel as a reflection of a pro-Western outlook. While Turkey has sought to use these ties to bring the Jewish lobby on side in the US, Israel has recognised the importance - both political and strategically - of having a large Muslim ally that lies contiguous to the Arab world.
Military partnership has thus been extensive. Since the two countries signed a military co-operation agreement in 1996, Turkey is reported to have bought $3bn worth of Israeli arms. Israel, in the meantime, rubs its hands knowing that Ankara plans to spend $150bn on armaments over the next 20 to 25 years. In the meantime, intelligence co-operation, joint exercises and arms development remain the norm, as does the extended access enjoyed by Israeli aircraft to train in Turkish airspace.
This though is not to suggest that Turkish policy is harnessed by unconditional loyalty to traditional allies. The Turkish parliament after all decided to deny the US access to Turkey as a staging point from which to launch a ground invasion into Iraq in 2003. This was in spite of the withdrawal of a $20-30bn US aid package that the decision implied. But a combination of factors were key, including the lack of UN endorsement, economic losses from the 1991 invasion, and the prospect of further Kurdish upheaval - all of which outweighed US pressure.
Meanwhile, now that the AKP has been pushing to reform minority rights, Ankara may feel somewhat less dependent on a relationship with Israel. One of the key planks of this connection has long been the fact that Israel had far fewer concerns over making military deals with Turkey than some Western countries.
But while security interests predominate, analysts argue that commercial ties provide another deterrent for a greater estrangement between Turkey and Israel. Two-way trade between Israel and Turkey is estimated to reach $2bn in 2004 and efforts are underway to double this figure over the coming years. In the meantime, 8% of Israel's population (300,000 tourists) visit Turkey every year, providing an outlet from a less-than-friendly Middle East. Yet, whilst bilateral trade with Israel is expanding, Turkey's continuing need to import oil and gas means that it still remains more dependent on trade with its Muslim neighbours.
Considering these factors it is no surprise that Olmert attempted to heal the rift during his recent visit in Ankara. The deputy prime minister reiterated the importance of Turkey as a strategic partner whilst pointing to the significance of ever-expanding economic ties. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul reciprocated by repeating Turkey's commitment to a continuation of friendly relations with Israel, as in the past. In the context of Erdogan's recent criticisms, Olmert pointed to Sharon's efforts - however dubious - to withdraw settlers from the Gaza Strip so as to reduce the level of regional conflict.
Tension over the Palestinian issue though is not likely to disappear so long as Sharon pursues a policy that so overtly impinges upon the freedoms of the Palestinian people. Whilst Olmert's visit reconfirmed old ties, it could not eliminate contemporary concerns. Prime Minister Erdogan has testified to that.