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Once Close Allies, Israel, Turkey Clash On Raid

Israel's raid on a pro-Palestinian flotilla of aid ships has drawn criticism from across the globe, but nowhere more severe or damaging than in Turkey, until recently one of its closest allies.

The Turkish-registered ship Marmara was the target of the Israeli commando raid that left nine people dead and dozens more wounded. Eight of those killed were Turkish nationals; a ninth had dual U.S.-Turkish citizenship. Fury over their deaths has led to the biggest crisis in Israeli-Turkey relations in years.

This week hundreds of Israelis staged an impromptu protest in front of the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv. They burned Turkish flags and chanted anti-Turkey slogans. But their protests were dwarfed by the anti-Israel rallies in Istanbul and other Turkish cities.

Cooling Ties

Just four years ago, Turkey was considered one of Israel's closest allies in the region. The two countries staged regular joint military training exercises and had an open line of communication among the various divisions of their armed forces.

That relationship has now descended into open hostility.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Israel was on the verge of losing its best friend in the region. He said Israel's decision to raid the Marmara was an unacceptable violation of international law.

The Turkish government has demanded that Israel lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip and allow an investigation into the raid. Israel has rejected those calls, saying the blockade prevents missile attacks on Israel from the Hamas-ruled territory.

Turkey has also called off planned military exercises with Israel, and some Israeli analysts fear military contracts between the two countries could also suffer.

Israeli analyst Anat Lapidot-Firilla, a professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, says that Turkey-Israel relations were once prized by both countries. She says Turkey viewed its diplomatic ties with Israel as a symbol of its acceptance to the West.

"They saw their relationship with Israel as an extension of their relations with the U.S. This doesn't exist anymore," Lapidot-Firilla said. "But today they see the map differently, so they can be a lot more aggressive toward Israel."

The Iran Factor

She says Turkey has become increasingly close to Arab states, and has attempted to help Iran avoid more U.N. sanctions over its suspected nuclear weapons program. Israel regards the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat.

Yaakov Katz, a military analyst for the Jerusalem Post newspaper, says Turkey's newfound closeness to Iran is ironic, considering Israeli air force pilots are widely reported to have simulated attacks on Iranian nuclear installations during training flights over Turkish territory.

Katz has observed Israeli and Turkish military exercises in the past.

"Israel is a very small country and the air force requires large places to be able to drill and exercise long-range flights — such [as] a potential attack against Iran," Katz said. "Turkey which is a very large country, has enabled Israel to fly over its airspace, and that has allowed Israel to be able to practice long-range flights, that some of them may need to carry out in the near future."

Israel has never acknowledged that its training exercises were to prepare for a strike on Iran, or that such a strike is being planned. But Katz says that Israel is already exploring other locations for practicing aerial maneuvers.

Seeking New Allies

"Israel is always on the lookout for new agreements that it can strike with other nations that will allow it to fly its fighter jets over there and practice long-range bombing strikes," Katz said.

Lapidot-Firilla says Israel has already contacted a number of countries such as Azerbaijan and Greece to propose joint drills. Still, she says, the deteriorating relationship between Israel and Turkey will be felt acutely within the Israeli military establishment.

"Cooperation between Israel and Turkey on a military level might have been considered of vital importance. But since it's no longer an option, all we can do now is shed tears over it," she said.

Turkey already has called off planned military exercises with Israel, and some Israeli analyst fear military contracts between the two countries could also be scuffled.

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