REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- The massive earthquake that shook eastern Turkey on Sunday was felt across the Mediterranean and rattled skyscrapers as far away as Tel-Aviv and other cities in Israel, once a close strategic ally of Turkey.
Israeli diplomatic, defense, and emergency authorities spoke with their Turkish counterparts and expressed their condolences. They offered assistance and Israel's army has put its rescue and recovery teams on call. But for now Turkey has politely declined help from Israel and other nations, saying it hoped to tackle the crisis on its own. Turkish officials stressed that the decision was not politically motivated.
Relations with Turkey soured during Israel's military assault on the Gaza Strip nearly two years ago and might have recovered had it not been for the ill-fated raid on May 2010 by the Israeli military on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was leading an aid flotilla to Gaza. Nine passengers were killed during Israel's naval interception of the boats.
So-called "disaster diplomacy" has offered opportunities for the two countries to mend relations in the past. When Turkey sent firefighters to help Israel battle a massive wildfire that ravaged the Carmel forest last December, Israel hoped to use the moment of goodwill to patch ties. But negotiations fell through and matters ultimately worsened. In 1999, Israel sent extensive emergency teams to help in the aftermath of another devastating earthquake in Turkey.
Many in Israel would like to see the important alliance restored, not least the defense establishment, which favored apologizing to Turkey if it pledged to refrain from taking legal action against Israeli soldiers over the flotilla raid. A few months ago,Turkish media reported that intelligence units had succeeded in a "Facebook hunt" for Israeli soldiers involved in the raid and would pursue future prosecution.
Other matters muddling relations in the Mediterranean region involve massive offshore natural gas fields between Israel and Cyprus. Turkey was not pleased with the agreement signed between Israel and Cyprus demarcating their rights to the lucrative gas deposits, claiming it infringed on Turkey's rights.
In a move that could be viewed as both pragmatic and political, Israel has been increasingly tightening relations with Greece and Cyprus, both longtime nemeses of Turkey. Turkish media reports that Israel and Cyprus are planning a joint military exercise in coming days, calling the timing "unfortunate."
Cypriot officials denied the report.
— Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Emergency crews work to rescue people Monday from the rubble of toppled buildings in Ercis in eastern Turkey. Credit: Burhan Ozbilici / Associated Press