ISTANBUL — Israel's three-week offensive triggered an unprecedented backlash from one of its closest regional allies, Turkey, fraying longstanding positive relations between the two countries.

Turkey, a member of NATO and the UN Security Council, with aspirations of joining the European Union, has maintained strong ties to the West and, historically, Israel.

Just five days prior to the Gaza onslaught Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met in Turkey to discuss — among other pressing issues — the Mideast peace process.

Turkey, which has been working to enhance its clout as a regional mediator, has figured prominently in efforts to resolve a lingering dispute between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights. During the Gaza conflict, a Turkish delegation shuttled between Egypt, where cease-fire talks were taking place, and Syria, where exiled Hamas leaders are based, all the while making clear that it did not wish to risk cutting diplomatic ties with Israel.

Yet on Monday, the prominent Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the head of the political-security bureau at the Israeli Defense Ministry, Amos Gilad, refused to meet with Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's senior foreign policy adviser, while the two were in Cairo last week.

Citing a political source in Jerusalem, Haaretz attributed the refusal to "the deterioration in relations between Jerusalem and Ankara, stemming from the unprecedented verbal attacks by Erdogan on Israel."

Indeed, the language used by the Turkish government in expressing its opposition to the Israeli campaign has surprised Mideast observers with its intensity and vitriol.

In late December, as the Gaza bombings began, Erdogan set out on a regional tour that sought to focus attention on the "ruthless" offensive.

Absent from the itinerary was Israel. Erdogan indicated that he would not meet with Israeli officials before a cease-fire agreement was reached, calling the offensive "an act of disrespect" toward Turkey, particularly as it came just days after his meeting with Olmert.

Erdogan had also previously lashed out at Israel over its attack on a UN building in Gaza on Jan. 15, saying Israel was "defying the world and mocking the world."

President Abdullah Gul, for his part, said last Friday, the eve of the unilateral Israeli cease-fire, that he was "ashamed on behalf of humanity" by the Israeli action, while protesters took to the streets across Turkey, growing in number and intensity as the offensive wore on.

Svante Cornell, research director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, based jointly in Washington and Stockholm, said Erdogan's outburst in particular caught many by surprise.

"The type of rhetoric being used by Prime Minister Erdogan was not something that had been expected in either Israel or in Western capitals," Cornell said, speaking from Stockholm.

Indeed, he argued, Israel may have expected greater support and a level of sympathy from a country that had long battled its own insurgency, in the form of the separatist PKK movement (Kurdish Workers' Party), listed by the U.S., Turkey, and Israel as a terrorist organization.

"You have these Hamas rockets raining down," Cornell said. "You would expect that, even if Turkey does criticize Israel, there would also be a level of understanding towards their campaign."

Since 1949, when Turkey became the first predominantly Muslim country to recognize the state of Israel, it has been Israel's main regional ally with far-reaching economic and military ties.

Despite their glaring historical and cultural differences, the two countries share a great deal. They are traditionally religious countries with secular grounding in their government and culture. They both share regional status as non-Arab countries. And both nations have also faced armed insurgencies and struggled against terrorism.

The Gaza incursion has, however, brought to the surface feelings of anger and diplomatic divisions.

Protests in Istanbul on the day the bombing campaign began quickly spread to the rest of Turkey and intensified. From the thousands who gathered outside the Israeli Consulate General when the bombings began, to a heated demonstration in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir, protesters cried out against Israel with fists raised, chanting slogans and carrying banners condemning the violence.

The Turkish Consumers Association has also been spearheading a consumer boycott of Israeli-made goods. Turkey is Israel's eighth largest trading partner, with trade between the two countries worth over $2.6 billion a year in 2007.

As the leader of a secular state, Erdogan has also come under fire from Western and Israeli observers for drawing religious rhetoric into politics.

At a municipal election rally in Anatolia on Jan. 5, he said "Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents."

"Erdogan has been using all the traditional anti-Semitic words to express his frustration with the situation," said Henri Barkey, chair of the International Relations Department of Lehigh University, PA, noting that despite the moderation the AK Party has built its name on, its roots go back to a very anti-Semitic tradition in Turkish politics.

Cornell, meanwhile, spoke critically of an erosion of the AK Party's initially Westward-looking policies, attributing the shift to "a trend of the Turkish government guided more by Islamic solidarity and anti-Western sentiment than by pragmatic calculations of interest."

While Turkey's diplomatic ties are with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who leads rival Palestinian faction, Fatah, Erdogan was the first leader to host Khaled Meshal, Hamas' senior leader, after their victory in the Palestinian elections in 2006.

Turkey has defended its contact with Hamas, framing its position as being beneficial to the international community. In the words of Turkey's foreign minister, Ali Babacan, cutting ties with Israel "in order to satisfy certain circles or in the name of populism will harm the region."

Worryingly, Barkey said, Turkey's reaction to the Gaza offensive sent a signal to Israel about the strength of the relationship and may weaken Turkey's ability to act as an objective moderator in future regional disputes.

"Turkey will always be an important country, but it seems to have lost some of its luster as a result of Erdogan's statements," said Barkey, adding that Ankara may lose some of Israel's support in the future on issues such as the Golan Heights dispute. "For now, Turkey has earned itself a seat at the table but it is not guaranteed."

More broadly, Cornell added: "While Israel will likely remain careful not to antagonize their relationship with Turkey, I think they will be forced to change their strategic expectations that Turkey will remain a dependable ally in the future."

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