Israel urges Turkey rethink ties with Hamas, Iran

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Brushing off fierce Turkish censure of its offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Israel urged Ankara on Sunday to consider cooling ties with the Palestinian Islamists and Iran.

The Israeli military campaign, which ended in a January 18 truce, triggered protests from Turkey culminating in a shouting match last week between its Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum.

Israeli officials have tried to play down the schism with Muslim, mostly secular Turkey, a key ally of the Jewish state.

But Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Sunday said the onus was on Ankara to get tough with Hamas, which won a 2006 Palestinian vote but has been shunned by the West for refusing to accept peace with Israel and halt short-range rocket salvoes from Gaza.

“It must be remembered that after Hamas took power, Turkey was the first country to invite them over, so we find ourselves both in an important relationship but also in a dispute about how to conduct ourselves regionally,” Livni told Israel Radio.

“Despite the street demonstrations, despite the difficult images from Gaza ... Hamas is everyone’s problem. And most countries in the region, in the Middle East, have understood this more than the Turks,” said Livni, a frontrunner to succeed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an Israeli election next week.

Shifting focus to Iran and its nuclear plans, Livni said other nations in the region “understand that Iran is everyone’s problem” and steps need to be taken to deny it the means for making an atomic bomb. Tehran denies having any such intent.

“Turkey, in this case, has found itself in a regional position different to everyone else,” Livni said.

Defense TIES

Friendly with an Arab world over which it ruled in Ottoman times, Turkey has billed itself as a force for rapprochement, hosting indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria last year.

Ankara’s army is also an important Israeli defense client. Assumed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, Israel has held air force drills in northern Turkey which may have been designed to convey strategic reach in the face of arch-foe Iran.

Some Israeli diplomats have voiced quiet concern over the direction of Turkey under Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK party. The flareup of tensions over Gaza prompted many Israeli travel agents to cancel usually sold-out packages at Turkish resorts.

Speaking from Ankara, Israeli Ambassador Gabby Levy said he was working with local authorities to repair ties. He predicted improvement after next month’s local elections in Turkey; some political analysts believe Erdogan’s Gaza rhetoric was designed to shore up AK’s popularity with a pro-Palestinian electorate.

“There is a rift in our relations. This cannot be hidden. But these relations are very important for both countries,” Levy told Israel Radio, adding that “the Turkish government (is) drawing a distinction between bilateral ties and the censure they are leveling at us over the (Gaza) operation.”

Editing by Dominic Evans