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By Barak Ravid and Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz Correspondents, and Haaretz Service
Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday warned against further harming Israel’s relations with Turkey, after Turkey excluded Israel from a joint military exercise because of its criticism of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza.
“The relations between Israel and Turkey are strategic and have been maintained for dozens of years,” Barak said in a closed meeting, according to a statement his press officer released.
He added: “Despite all the ups and downs, Turkey continues to be a central figure in our region; it is unsuitable to be drawn into criticizing it.”
The international aerial exercise, which was to include the IAF as well as aircraft and pilots from NATO, was due to be based at an air base in the central Anatolian city of Konya.
On Sunday, Turkey’s foreign minister publicly acknowledged for the first time that criticism of the Gaza campaign was the reason for his country’s exclusion of Israel from the drill.
“We hope that the situation in Gaza will be improved, that the situation will be back to the diplomatic track,” the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told CNN in response to a question on why Turkey excluded Israel from the drill.
“And that will create a new atmosphere in Turkish-Israeli relations as well,” he added. “But in the existing situation, of course, we are criticizing this approach, [the] Israeli approach.”
Earlier, the Turkish foreign ministry said “a technical matter,” not politics, prompted the delay of the drill, CNN reported.
Foreign Ministry calls emergency meeting to discuss crisis
Officials at the Foreign Ministry called an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss the crisis between Israel and Turkey, marked by the cancellation.
A senior source at the ministry told Haaretz about concerns that strategic ties with Turkey are in jeopardy after Operation Lead Cast in the Gaza Strip earlier this year.
Foreign Ministry sources confirmed that the meeting had taken place following instructions by ministry director general Yossi Gal, but they declined to give details.
Officials are debating the depth of the crisis. One view holds that “strategic ties” has become a unilateral description of the situation and that Turkey’s government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not interested in such links.
“It may be that the reality has changed and the strategic ties that we thought existed have simply ended,” said a senior Israeli official. “Maybe we need to be the ones who initiate renewed thinking regarding our ties and must adopt response measures.”
Supporters of this approach point out that of the countries with diplomatic ties with Israel, Turkey might be the most hostile.
But other officials argue that the situation can be saved. “There is a serious crisis and we need to address it quickly,” said a senior official who has experience with the Turkish file.
The exercise was scheduled to include crews from Italy, the Netherlands, the United States and other NATO countries. But unlike the preparations with other participants, the Turks stalled on beginning talks with their Israeli counterparts.
Last week, Turkish military officials surprised the Israel Defense Forces with news that they were canceling Israel’s participation in the exercise because of the country’s activities in the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s efforts to gain an answer from the Turkish Foreign Ministry was met with evasive responses. Israel then contacted the United States, Italy and the Netherlands on the issue; these countries announced that they would not take part in the exercise.
Senior Foreign Ministry officials say this is an unusual move by the Turks because, despite the tension and Erdogan’s anti-Israeli rhetoric, it’s the first real step that violates the tripartite agreement between Israel, the United States and Turkey.
Israeli officials say that as far as they know, the move by the Turkish military stemmed from direct orders by Erdogan, who has been piling on anti-Israeli rhetoric since the Gaza offensive, which also led to a freeze in the negotiations Turkey was mediating between Syria and Israel.
Analysts say the key change in Turkey’s attitude is that the military has acquiesced to the prime minister’s political directives on an issue of defense strategy.
Erdogan has blamed Israel for committing what it calls genocide in the Gaza Strip and says then prime minister Ehud Olmert betrayed him. Erdogan also confronted President Shimon Peres at Davos in January and has insisted that Israel must be tried for war crimes.
The Turkish leader has also called for sanctions against Iran to be lifted, and has called on the international community to focus on Israel’s nuclear capabilities instead