ISTANBUL (AP) — Ties between Turkey, NATO's biggest Muslim member, and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that says Israel should not exist, are blossoming.
Last month, the Hamas premier visited the Turkish prime minister at his Istanbul home. Today, Turkish and Palestinian flags fly side by side at a building site in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
It seems like bad news for Israel, whose alliance with Turkey collapsed over a deadly raid by Israeli troops on a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza in 2010. Yet some pundits believe that Turkey, a rising power that has worked with Washington on Iraq and other regional problems, could seek to nudge Hamas away from the principle of armed struggle or reduce the influence of Iranian sponsors.
They acknowledge closer engagement with Hamas could disrupt Turkish diplomacy if there is another Gaza war, or a return to rocket attacks and bombings of Israeli targets. Israel wonders if Turkey will veer closer to the Hamas line, rather than the other way around.
Another Hamas sponsor, Syria, is struggling to quell an uprising and has broken with Turkey, a former ally that says President Bashar Assad should resign. Turkey has said there are no plans for Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas political leader based in Damascus, to move to Turkey, though some Turkish analysts think the government phrasing did not close the door on the idea of a Hamas office in Turkey.
"Turkey would like to have more influence over Hamas as part of its general program of increasing influence in the region. Certainly, the decline of Syria has made that relationship more attractive to Hamas," Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in the United States, wrote in an email.
However, he noted: "Hamas would have to be very isolated indeed for Turkey to be able to push it in directions that it doesn't want to go. Given its ability to get aid from private donors in the Gulf and from Iran, that type of desperation seems unlikely in the short term."
As a possible patron or model for Hamas, Turkey seemingly has a lot to share, though its ambitions for influence elsewhere in the fast-changing region have sometimes fallen short of expectations. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a pious Muslim at the helm of a secular political system that he has dominated with robust election wins and a strong economic record.
He won Palestinian praise in blockaded Gaza with harsh criticism of Israel. While Turkish officials back calls for democratic reform in response to popular uprisings, Iran remains supportive of Syria and is under U.N. sanctions because of its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Iran says the program is peaceful, an assertion that Turkey once backed enthusiastically. Now there are strains, partly because Turkey agreed to host a NATO defense shield radar that would warn of any Iranian ballistic missiles. Turkey and Iran are also wary of each other's involvement in Iraq, a stew of sectarian tension.
"On the diplomatic front, Turkey and Iran enjoy cordial relations. Turkey buys oil and gas from Iran," said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a political analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara. "However, there are thorny issues under the table."
Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, noted that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey made "very friendly statements" toward Hamas and, in his view, absolved the group of responsibility for attacks on Israeli civilians.
"If Turkey's approach would have the effect of moderating Hamas, then we could understand the strategy," Palmor said. "But in fact, the opposite is true. Hamas in all its public statements continues to toe its ultra-extremist line, and the Turkish government is the one that distanced itself from Israel. So it looks like Hamas is influencing the Turkish government, and not vice versa."
The relationship between Turkey and Hamas came to prominence in 2006, when a delegation led by Mashaal visited Ankara after their victory in Palestinian elections.
More recently, Turkey encouraged Hamas to reconcile with rival faction Fatah in what could be a key step toward any accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Last year, Turkey hosted a meeting between the two factions, which have tentatively agreed to hold elections next year.
In October, Turkey welcomed 11 Palestinian prisoners who were among hundreds freed in an exchange for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Selcuk Unal, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, said the gesture was a "contribution to the bigger picture" between Israel and the Palestinians and was done at the written request of the Palestinians, and with Israel's knowledge.
Gulnur Aybet, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Kent at Canterbury in Britain, said Turkey appeared to be trying to use its "soft power to persuade Hamas to act more like a political party," which could include the downplaying or abandonment of the tenet that Israel should not exist. She acknowledged that some factions within Hamas would strongly resist such a move.
Some Israeli media have reported that Turkish officials plan to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to Hamas. Turkey denies it. It is, however, funding the construction of a hospital in Gaza and helping in efforts to establish an industrial zone there and improve infrastructure for businesses, including textiles and furniture.
On Jan. 1, the Hamas premier, Ismail Haniyeh, visited Erdogan on his first trip outside Gaza since the Islamist group seized control of the territory in a 2007 fight with Fatah. He said in Turkey: "We have reached consensus to work for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip."
Henri Barkey, a Turkey analyst at Lehigh University in the United States, doubted there was an "infusion of money into Hamas coffers" from Turkey, but said aid initiatives were a means of indirect funding.
"Turkish support, on the one hand, could be moderating," Barkey said. Or, he said, "the very fact that they have Turkish support may convince them that they don't have to change their line. I don't have the answer to that question. I don't think anyone has the answer to that question. I don't think even Hamas has the answer to that question."
Associated Press writers Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed.