ANKARA(Reuters)–After Saturday’s car bomb attacks on two Istanbul synagogues–which killed at least 23 Muslims and Jews–the foreign ministers of Turkey and Israel stood side by side and vowed to fight global terrorism together.
It was a clear sign that–far from driving another wedge between Jews and Muslims–the suicide bombers had reinforced already close ties between Turkey and Israel. Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network is widely suspected of being behind the blasts.
Turkey and Israel–non-Arab countries in a predominantly Arab region–cultivate close economic and military ties. Turkey has held joint military maneuvers with Israel and opens its airspace to Israeli warplanes for exercises.
At the same time–Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) says it seeks closer ties with the Arab world and sees its moderate–secular brand of democracy as a model for other Muslim countries. Washington shares that view.
Analysts said the bombers had targeted Turkey–and in particular its vibrant commercial and cultural capital Istanbul–for precisely this reason.
"This was an attack not only on Jews–but on Turkey as a whole. Turkey is hated by radical Islamists as pro-Western,” said Efraim Inbar–a Turkey expert at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel.
"But the attacks will not affect the bilateral relations with Israel because we are both committed to the fight against international terrorism.”
Israel offered Turkey practical help–including the expertise of Israeli Mossad secret service teams. Turkey vowed no change in its foreign and security policy.
Turkey is no stranger to home-grown attacks–from Kurdish–Armenian–far-left–and Islamist groups–but the scale and target of the latest blasts–which left more than 300 people injured–has put them in a category of their own.
NATO member Turkey is 98 percent Muslim–but it has long had close security ties with Israel. Good relations with the Jewish community date back to the 15th century when Ottoman’sultans offered refuge to Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.
PRO-WESTERN MUSLIM GOVERNMENT
Despite its own roots in political Islam–Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP has championed pro-Western liberal reforms since coming to office a year ago–seeking to qualify for European Union entry talks.
It also agreed to send troops to back US-led forces in Iraq–although it later dropped the offer after Iraqi protests.
Ilnur Cevik–editor of the English-language Turkish Daily News–wrote in a column: "Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda preach Islamic fundamentalism…and see Turkey as the greatest obstacle for them to create more Taliban-type administrations."
"They feel [moderate Muslim] parties–like the AKP–are the greatest obstacle between them and radicalism."
Diplomats say the AKP–though sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians–needed the close links with Israel even more than its predecessors as it tries to overcome the distrust of Turkey’s staunchly secular military and security establishment.
"For the AKP–the special relationship [with Israel] sets a quality stamp on their pro-Western orientation," said one.
"If they ever tried to change that strategic relationship–it would arouse a lot of suspicion–both in Turkey’s military and in the West–but it would also hurt their own interests."
He said Turkey relied on the Jewish lobby in the United States to press its case against other powerful US interest groups–notably the Greek and Armenian lobbies–which both nurse historic grievances against their one-time imperial master. Inbar–asked about the AKP’s Islamist roots–said: "Turkey’s Islamists are nationalists–they defend national interests. So it is business as usual [for the Turkey-Israel relationship."