updated 5/1/2005 9:07:27 PM ET 2005-05-02T01:07:27

Israel and Turkey agreed to set up a hot line for instant communication between the nations’ leaders, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Sunday during a visit by his Turkish counterpart.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Israel seeking to mend Turkey’s relations with the Jewish state and join in a new wave of Middle East peace efforts.

Israel and Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim state, have long had strong military ties and important trade links. But relations grew strained last year when Erdogan, whose party has its roots in Turkey’s Islamic movement, strongly criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

The hot line will boost joint anti-terror efforts and other coordination.

“We learned from experience that even when you have close intelligence contacts there is great significance to contacts between leaders and between countries at the highest level,” Sharon said, noting that Israel already has such hot lines with the United States, Britain, EU and Russia.

Erdogan’s trip marks the second time a Turkish premier has visited Israel. In 1994, then-Prime Minister Tansu Ciller brought an entourage of 200 ministers and business leaders on a three-day visit here.

‘Committed to peace’
World leaders have been flooding into the region in recent months, hoping to capitalize on a drop in violence and new peace hopes in the wake of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death last year. British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited in December and Russian President Vladimir Putin came last week, making the first visit by a Kremlin leader.

Both visits were seen as efforts by the leaders to burnish their international reputations by casting themselves as key mediators in the Mideast conflict. With some in Washington questioning Turkey’s role as a strategic ally, and Europeans increasingly skeptical about letting Turkey into the European Union, Erdogan appears to have come for the same reason.

“Turkey was always committed to peace and always will be committed to peace and security in the region,” he said after arriving.

He later laid a wreath at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, but in a break with protocol did not cover his head at the Hall of Remembrance, where the ceremony took place.

Israel also welcomed the visit, which it can use to showcase the benefits of its alliance with a Muslim nation.

None of the high-profile visits has had much impact on peace efforts. Though Palestinians have welcomed calls for international mediation and renewed movement in the stalled “road map” peace plan, Israel has said it would not consider new peace talks until after it withdraws from the Gaza Strip this summer.

Erdogan met Sunday with Israeli President Moshe Katsav. He was to sign a research and development agreement with Israel, and leaders from the two countries were also expected to work on a $400 million deal to have Israel upgrade 30 of Turkey’s F-4 Phantom jets.

‘Go-between role’
On Monday, Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, is to visit the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, Islam’s third-holiest site. He then will head to the West Bank city of Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian leaders.

“In our meetings with the sides, we will remind (them of) our readiness for a possible go-between role or to host conferences in our country,” Erdogan said in Ankara, Turkey, before departing for Israel.

In a gesture ahead of Erdogan’s trip, Turkey gave the Palestinian Authority the title deeds of lands and property in the West Bank and Gaza it had acquired during the nearly 400-year rule here of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet reported Sunday.

Turkey hopes the 140,000 pages of deeds, covering the years 1500 to 1914, will help Palestinians defend their rights in local and international courts, the paper said.

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