Turkey barred Israel from NATO exercise over Gaza-PM
* Erdogan says diplomacy and "conscience" behind decision
* Israel says Turkish-Syrian exercises are no surprise
(Recasts with fresh quotes)
By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Turkey barred Israel from participating in a NATO war exercise this week because of its public's concerns over Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip this year, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said.
"There are diplomatic sensitivities in the region which we had to take into consideration... and we took into consideration the conscience of our people ... because our people did not want Israel's participation," he told Al Arabiya television.
Turkey, a secular state with a Muslim population, has been a key ally of Israel, but relations have cooled over Erdogan's outspoken criticism of Israel's three-week offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in December and January.
The U.S. State Department on Tuesday objected to Turkey's last-minute decision to exclude Israel from the exercise, which had been due to start on Monday.
The drill was postponed indefinitely after other nations, including the United States and Italy, refused to take part without Israel's air force, diplomatic sources said.
After Turkey announced Israel's exclusion, Syria said it would conduct military exercises with Turkey. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem welcomed Turkey's decision, saying it "reflects the way Turkey regards the Israeli attack in Gaza".
Israel dismissed the Turkish-Syrian announcement.
"This shouldn't come as a surprise in light of the political background of the prime minister, particularly his foreign minister," Israeli security cabinet minister Benny Begin told Israel Radio when asked about the Turkish-Syrian exercises.
"This goes hand in hand with Syria's wish as expressed twice in the past year in President Assad's visits to Tehran, to create a bloc of countries made up of Iran, Syria and Turkey, and they say, also Iraq. This, of course, is of great concern."
CLOSE MILITARY TIES
Turkey and Israel have enjoyed close military cooperation, including Israeli air force training in Turkish air space. The two countries also share intelligence and have strong trade ties, including the sale of important military equipment.
"All I know is that this is a political decision by the Turks and that the relationship between the Turkish military and the Israeli military remains strong," said an official from a NATO country that had planned to take part in the exercise.
Relations were strained after Erdogan criticised Israel over the Gaza campaign and walked out on Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, previously a policy adviser to Erdogan, has spearheaded the AK Party government's push to boost ties with neighbours including south Caucasus states, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
A U.N. report last month found that both the Israeli armed forces and Hamas militants had committed war crimes in the Gaza conflict, but was more critical of Israel.
A Palestinian rights group says 1,417 Palestinians, including 926 civilians, were killed in the war. Israel has said 709 Palestinian combatants were killed along with 295 civilians and 162 people whose status it was unable to clarify.
Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians were killed during the conflict, which Israel launched with the declared aim of ending cross-border rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. (Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Inal Ersan in Dubai; writing by Paul de Bendern; editing by Andrew Roche)
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