U.S., Israeli and Turkish fighter jets staged mock dogfights over central Turkey on Monday as part of what Israeli officials call the most important military exercises ever held by the three countries.
The maneuvers, called Anatolian Eagle, are being conducted over the central province of Konya, an Islamic stronghold. They are expected to continue until June 29.
"That these exercises should be proceeding as planned is the strongest possible message that Turkey is not afraid to be our friend even with the resumption of the [Palestinian] intifada," said an Israeli official familiar with the exercises who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Turkish officials have offered little information about the war games, which have met with resistance from Turkey's largest opposition group, the pro-Islamic Virtue Party.
Turkey, which is predominantly Muslim but officially secular, has emerged as Israel's strongest regional ally in recent years.
Encouraged by the United States, the two countries signed a military training and cooperation agreement in 1996. Turkey's first Islamic-led government sealed the accord.
A torrent of accusations ensued from the two countries' Arab neighbors and Iran, including charges that the alliance was directed against the Muslim world.
But Turkish policymakers say the alliance with the Jewish state has boosted Turkey's strategic value immeasurably in the eyes of its Western allies. Perceptions of that importance faded after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"Rapprochement with the Israelis was our smartest foreign policy move since joining NATO," said Hasan Koni, a professor of political science at Ankara University.
Ties between the two countries have expanded in recent years to include trade and tourism. Israel has signed a $700-million deal to upgrade Turkey's squadron of U.S.-manufactured F-4 fighter jets. And talks are underway for the sale to Israel of water from southern Turkey's Manavgat River, which would be shipped via the Mediterranean.
The joint air exercises follow naval search-and-rescue operations held in January off the Israeli coast. Unlike previous simulations, however, Anatolian Eagle is reportedly offensive in nature.
Virtue Party lawmakers criticized the noise from the mock air battles, and environmental groups said the exercises will scare thousands of flamingos from a central Turkish lake.
In a statement, the Turkish general staff denied charges that the planes would use ordnance containing depleted uranium.