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Israel: Turkey calls off joint air force drill

Turkey cancels an annual joint air force drill that was to have taken place this week because it opposed Israeli participation, the Israeli military says, in the latest sign of deteriorating relations.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Turkey has canceled an annual joint air force drill that was to have taken place this week because it opposed Israeli participation, the Israeli military said Sunday, in the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the two countries.

Turkey, a secular country ruled by an Islamic-oriented party, had long been Israel's best friend in the Muslim world, but ties have cooled sharply over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's sharp criticism of Israel's winter war in the Gaza Strip.

A brief statement posted on the Turkish military's Web site said the annual Anatolia Eagle drill would take place Oct. 10-23, but that international participation had been canceled following "international negotiations conducted by the Turkish Foreign Ministry." The statement did not elaborate.

Turkish military officials were not available for comment. A government spokesman reached Sunday would only point to the military's statement, saying he had nothing more to add.

The Israeli military said in a statement that the drill was delayed indefinitely "because of Turkey's decision to change the list of participating countries, thus excluding Israel."

Decision to blackball Israel
The exercise was to have been the sixth annual maneuver of its kind. The military said it was to have included U.S., Italian and NATO forces.

Israeli defense officials said Ankara canceled the drill after the U.S. pulled out over the Turkish decision to blackball Israel.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

The Israeli foreign ministry had no comment.

The Turkish move was different from other "unsympathetic" positions Ankara has taken toward Israel since the war because it harms Turkish military interests, said Amikam Nachmani, an Israeli political scientist. In the past, Turkey has spoken critically of Israel but has refrained from harming military ties, he said.

"This is a warning bell," Nachmani said.

Israel and Turkey have wide-ranging military, economic and strategic ties, and last year Ankara hosted months of indirect talks between Israel and Syria after an eight-year breakdown.

But tensions peaked when Erdogan stormed out of a high-profile conference where he confronted Israel's president over steep Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza.

Palestinian officials and human rights groups say more than 900 civilians died in the offensive, which was launched to halt years of rocket fire from Gaza on southern Israel.

Israel disputes that number but has provided no evidence to back up that claim.

Relations tested in the past
The Israeli air force last conducted joint maneuvers with Turkey several months before the war broke out in December.

Turkish-Israeli ties have been tested in the past by earlier attacks on Palestinians but strong security interests helped to mend fences.

Turkey and Israel grew close in the mid-1990s, their alliance based on mutual fears of Iran and Syria. Israel has supplied hundreds of millions of dollars of military hardware to Turkey over the years, the two countries conduct joint naval exercises and the Israeli air force trains over Turkish airspace.

But since Erdogan's government came to power in 2003, Turkey's ties with Israel have cooled. Turkey believes the Islamic militant Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, must play a key role in the Palestinian territories.