Turkish Foreign Minister Visits Israel

JERUSALEM (Reuters)–Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem began an official visit to Israel on Monday–underscoring deepening ties between the two Middle Eastern military powers.

"I hope that this visit will help to further develop our relations," Cem told Reuters after arriving Jerusalem.

Cem is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–President Ezer Weizman and Israeli businessmen during his three-day visit–which will also take him to Palestinian self-ruled areas for talks with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

He is due to tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and to pay a private visit to al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s walled Old City–Islam’s third holiest shrine.

Turkey said Cem’s visit came at Netanyahu’s invitation.

The informal alliance and close military ties between the Jewish state and NATO member Turkey–which is overwhelmingly Moslem but officially secular–have alarmed many Arab states and Iran.

The two countries held their first joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean with the United States in January. Iran–Iraq and Syria condemned the search and rescue drills as a threat to regional security.

Greece–which is also a NATO member but has tense ties with Turkey–has also criticized the increasing cooperation between the two countries.

Israel has called the alliance a "strategic partnership" not aimed at any third party.

Turkish-Israeli military cooperation began with a 1996 accord which allowed Israeli air force planes to train in Turkish airspace.

Military ties include regular strategy talks–intelligence sharing and lucrative arms deals that could top $1 billion. Israel is already upgrading Turkey’s two squadrons of F-4 fighter planes.

But Turkey last month criticized an Israeli plan to extend the boundaries of Jerusalem and tighten the city’s ties with Jewish settlemen’s in the occupied West Bank.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman’said last week that Turkey pursues a "balanced policy" between Israelis and Palestinians.

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