JERUSALEM – Turkey has called off an international military drill because it opposed Israel's participation, Israeli defense officials said Sunday, a move that sent strained relations between the two nations to a new low.
Turkey has long been the Jewish state's best friend in the Muslim world. But ties have deteriorated dramatically since Israel's war last winter against Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip, which killed hundreds of civilians.
Turkey, a secular country ruled by an Islamic-oriented party, strongly condemned the Israeli offensive. Tensions soared after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of a high-profile conference where he confronted Israel's president over steep Palestinian civilian casualties.
Turkey's surprise cancellation of the air force drill, which was also to include the U.S. and NATO, was the first time its criticism of Israel has been translated into concrete action.
A brief statement posted on the Turkish military's Web site said the sixth annual Anatolia Eagle drill would take place Oct. 10-23, but that international participation had been canceled after "international negotiations conducted by the Turkish Foreign Ministry."
A Turkish government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, insisted that the decision was "due to a technical matter" rather than a political decision.
However, Israeli defense officials confirmed the Turks had banned Israel from the drill. "The exercise has been postponed as a result of Turkey's decision to change the list of participating countries, thus excluding Israel," the army said in a statement.
Israeli officials said that in response to Turkey's decision against Israel, the U.S. pulled out of the exercise, forcing Ankara to cancel the drill. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
The defense officials expressed disappointment with the decision. Beyond the diplomatic damage, they said the drill is an important training opportunity for Israeli pilots, who generally are confined to Israel's limited airspace.
Israeli officials are also concerned about Turkey's growing alliance with Iran. Israel considers Iran its greatest threat, citing Tehran's suspect nuclear program and its support for anti-Israel militant groups.
Turkey and Israel grew close in the mid-1990s, their alliance based on mutual fears of Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Israel has supplied hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment to Turkey over the years and has renovated Turkish tanks and fighter planes. The two countries have also conducted joint naval exercises, the Israeli air force has trained over Turkish airspace and last year Turkey hosted months of indirect talks between Israel and Syria after an eight-year breakdown. Turkey is also a popular destination for Israeli tourists.
But since Erdogan's Islamic government came to power in 2003, Turkey's ties with Israel have cooled as it has grown closer to Iran, Syria and Hamas — the Islamic leaders of Gaza.
Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said that during the Gaza war, Turkey took an even more anti-Israel stance than Arab nations such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He said it was part of a Turkish foreign policy of distancing itself from the West, and "this comes at the expense of Israel."
Mustafa Kibaroglu, an expert on Turkish-Israeli relations at assistant at Ankara's Bilkent University, called Turkey's ties to these Muslim nations "precarious."
"Should there be deterioration for any reason, then relations with Israel could again gain a strategic importance," he said. "I believe that from an economic point of view, technologically and for security reasons, the two countries need each other."
Turkish-Israeli ties have been tested in the past, but the shared security interests have persevered over any political disagreements.
Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon seemed to be trying to temper tensions Sunday, calling Turkey a "very important strategic anchor in the Mideast."
"Certainly its ties with Israel serve the entire region," Ayalon told Israel Radio, adding that "all of us want a tolerant Turkey that is part of Western civilization, and certainly an antithesis to the Iranian model."