By Ibon Villelabeitia
ANKARA, Feb 20 (Reuters) - The strategic relationship between Israel and Turkey will not suffer in the long term despite a rift over Israel’s war in Gaza but the two allies must take steps to restore confidence, Israel’s envoy to Turkey said.
Turkey’s fierce censure of Israel’s campaign, which ended in a Jan. 18 truce, has soured ties between the two key U.S. Middle East allies, which have close military cooperation.
The Turkish military has said that comments by an Israeli general who criticised Turkey’s military role in Cyprus and its conflict with Kurds could threaten cooperation, although the Israel military has disavowed such comments.
"There is an impasse right now in our relations, but I don’t think there has been a fundamental change because our ties are based on very sound interests," Gabby Levy told Reuters in an interview late on Thursday.
"Both sides lost some of the confidence in each other. It will take time to recover, but I am confident we will recover because of our mutual interests," said Levy, who was summoned by the Turkish government last week over the general’s comments.
Predominantly Muslim but officially secular, NATO member Turkey has a unique position in the region as it has close ties with Israel and Arab countries as well as with Washington.
It was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel, and has trade worth nearly $3 billion with Israel.
Under their military cooperation, Turkey allows the Israeli air force to train on its soil, and the two share intelligence.
Levy said the two countries were working on an exchange of high-level business delegations to begin mending fences.
Some analysts say Turkey’s role as a mediator in the Middle East, and in particular as a neutral negotiator between Israel and Syria, suffered short-term damage because of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s criticism of Israel and defence of Hamas.
Levy said Ankara could still play a role as a peace mediator in the Middle East, but said there were "new realities in the region", referring to the forming of a new government in Israel as well as a new U.S. president.
HAMAS AND IRAN
Turkey’s cementing of ties with Iran and Syria and its courting of Hamas since Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party swept to power in 2002 has raised speculation Turkey may be shifting away from its traditional Western allies.
Erdogan’s angry outburst with Israel’s president at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month over the fighting in Gaza has reinforced this view.
Erdogan says his party, which has roots in political Islam, had restored Turkey’s influence in the world and it is only natural that Turkey should use its new strength to help solve crises from the Middle East to the Caucasus.
Levy said he did not believe there was a shift in Turkey’s foreign policy and outlook away from its Western allies.
"Turkey has always been a regional power, but now they have taken an active role in enhancing some of the tracks of their relations with their neighbours. Of course, some aspects of this new policy is what is bothering us, namely Hamas and Iran."
Levy, born in the Turkish city of Bergama to a family of Sephardic Jews before they emigrated to Israel in 1949, said he was alarmed by anti-Semitism in Turkey after the war in Gaza.
"There has never been an established anti-Semitism in Turkey, but there is no doubt that during this crisis anti-Semitism has risen to levels we never saw before."
That fallout has already affected the number of Israeli tourists to Turkey, who in 2008 reached 550,000, a tiny fraction of the 26 million tourists who visited Turkey, but 7-8 percent of Israel’s population.
Levy said bookings from Israeli tourists to Turkey in spring were close to zero.