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Barak visits Turkey to discuss arms sales, Syria

TEL AVIV, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak travels to Turkey on Tuesday to shore up strategic ties and discuss prospects for reviving peace talks between Israel and Syria.

Muslim but secular Turkey is the Jewish state's most important regional ally. But ties were tested last year by an Israeli air strike in neighbouring Syria, seen widely as a possible prelude to any future attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

Ankara has offered to help reconcile Israel with Damascus and wants to defuse a diplomatic deadlock with the Palestinians amid spiralling cross-border violence in the Gaza Strip.

Barak confidants said he would use his two-day visit to Turkey to promote the proposed sale of an Israeli spy satellite and other defence deals.

A former Israeli premier whose tenure ended in 2001 after botched peace negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians, Barak was also expected to ask his hosts about the prospects of resuming talks with Damascus.

"Barak sees the Syrian track as far more promising than the Palestinian track," an Israeli political source said. "In this respect, he and (Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert are really on different wavelengths."

Olmert has voiced interest in talking to Damascus since Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon, but has balked at Syrian preconditions such as the return of the occupied Golan Heights.

A senior Turkish diplomat said Ankara "has been playing the role of facilitator, not mediator, between Syria and Israel".

Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan "might deliver a message from Damascus" to Barak, the diplomat added.

In talks with Turkey's Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul and armed forces chief General Yasar Buyukanit, Barak will urge Ankara to buy state-run Israel Aerospace Industries' (IAI) Ofek satellite for an estimated $300 million.

"This deal has been under discussion for years, but Barak's visit may help clinch it," an Israeli security source said.

Israel is the only Middle Eastern country to have built and deployed its own satellites. The first in the Ofek ("Horizon") series was launched in 1988. Ofek-7, billed as Israel's eye on arch-foe Iran, went into orbit last year.

Turkish diplomatic sources confirmed that Ankara wants to advance intelligence-sharing projects including satellites.

Turkey is taking delivery of around 10 Heron surveillance drones purchased from IAI for $200 million, the Israeli security source said, and has voiced a "preliminary interest" in Israel's Arrow II ballistic anti-missile system.

The sources also said Turkey would raise the situation in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip with Barak. Israel imposed a blockade on the impoverished Palestinian territory following cross-border rocket attacks by Islamist Hamas and other militant factions. (Additional reporting by Evren Mesci in Ankara; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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