Turkish Prime Minister Arrives in Bid to Mend Relations

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, visiting with a shopping list for military equipment, is attempting to warm relations that cooled last year when he accused Israel of state sponsored terrorism.

, | updated: 15:10

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Israel on Sunday, accompanied by 200 people, including 100 business leaders, for a 24 hour visit designed to mend the tepid relations that have developed between the two countries over the past year.

Erdogan accused Israel of state terrorism after the targeted killing of Hamas lead Sheik Ahmad Yassin last year, but has continued to develop defense and economic ties to the Jewish State.

On his first visit to Israel, Erdogan has assembled an unusually large delegation for the trip that includes his wife, ten parliament members, four ministers, 100 businessmen, and 50 journalists. He was greeted at the airport by Housing Minister Yitzhk Herzog.

Among the ministers accompanying the prime minister is Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul and his assistant in charge of purchasing who will remain in Israel two additional days as guests of the Defense Ministry.

According to Haaretz, Turkey will be discussing new deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel’s defense industry. One deal, worth $200 million was signed about two weeks ago, for the sale of Israeli-made long-range Heron drones to the Turkish air force. Israel Aircraft Industries will provide the planes and Elbit Systems, the communications and monitoring systems.

Another deal, for upgrading 30 F-4 Phantoms belonging to the Turkish Air Force, is worth $400-$500 million. In a previous deal, Israel Aircraft Industries upgraded 54 F-4 Phantoms, parceling out some of the work to Turkish businesses. This time, the Turks want all the work to be done locally at a Turkish air force base.

Excluding the defense deals, annual trade between the two countries totals about $2 billion, including revenue from 300,000 Israelis who visit Turkey each year. Israel imports around $1.2 worth of goods from Turkey and sells the Moslem country $0.8 billion in non-military goods.

Erdogan’s visit to Jerusalem will include meetings with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Moshe Katzav, Vice Ministers Ehud Olmert and Shimon Peres, opposition leader Yosef Lapid, and representatives of Israel’s 100,000 strong Turkish Jewish community.

Following Jerusalem, Erdogan is scheduled to make the expected pilgrimage to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority leaders.

Since his election in 2002, Israeli officials made it clear to Erdegon that he would not be welcomed in Israel, if he went ahead with his intention to visit Yasir Arafat. Erdogan said he would not visit Israel without a parallel visit to Arafat.

Erdogan expressed severe criticism of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians at the height of the Oslo war fighting, comparing Israeli actions to the Spanish Inquisition that led to the slaughter of Jews in the late 15th century. “Unfortunately, the people of Israel are treating the Palestinians as they were treated 500 years ago,” he was quoted as saying.

Erdogan hopes his visit will mend diplomatic damage done by his harsh comments and by the embarrassment caused by his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul last January when he refused to put on a kippa on a visit to Yad Vashem.

That gaffe has aroused speculation as to whether Erdogan will put on a kippa during his visit to Yad Vashem, scheduled for today. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli officials have made it clear to the Turks that Israel views wearing a head covering at Yad Vashem a sign of respect to the six million Jews who perished during World War II.

Gul’s reluctance to wear a head covering apparently was due to worry about how such an act would be received at home. Gul is a member of the Islamic AKP party which is headed by Erdogan.

Turkey currently serves as the head of the Organization of Islamic Conference.