TEL AVIV, Israel, June 16 (UPI) -- As relations between Israel and its erstwhile ally Turkey deteriorate following the Israeli navy's May 31 killing of nine Turks, authorities in Ankara are investigating whether Israel had links to a deadly attack by Kurdish separatists on the same day.
Shortly after midnight May 31, fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, attacked a military vehicle at the naval base at the port of Iskenderun, in Hatay province near the border with Syria, and killed seven naval personnel.
Iskenderun has never been a target for the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984 for an autonomous Kurdish enclave, although it has carried out attacks across Turkey.
A few hours later, Israeli naval commandos stormed the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, flagship of a convoy carrying humanitarian aid to Israeli-blockaded Gaza, in international waters. They killed nine Turks they claimed attacked them and wounded dozens of pro-Palestinian activists aboard the vessel.
Relations between Israel and Turkey, under strain since Turkey's Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, furiously denounced Israel's December 2008 invasion of the Gaza Strip, nosedived into bitter acrimony.
Many Turks saw the two murderous incidents as two sides of the same coin.
This was reflected within the political elite. Huseyin Celik, deputy chairman of Erdogan's Justice and development Party, or AKP, noted, "We do not think it's a coincidence that these two attacks took place at the same time."
Turks were furious at the Israeli action in the eastern Mediterranean and turned out at the funerals of their slain countrymen in huge numbers, led by senior government officials.
So far as is known, Turkey's intelligence service hasn't been able to provide any proof of possible Israeli involvement in the Iskenderun killings. Erdogan's interior minister, Besir Atalay has even sought to calm tempers.
"I don't want to say these (incidents) are related," he said. "Such investigations require close attention and we want to refrain from careless statements lacking tangibility …
"These subjects are delicate, especially when they have international dimensions."
Still, the Turks point to Israel's involvement with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq since the 1960s. Israel aided them off and on, depending on the geopolitical environment, because they fought against the Baathist regime which was virulently anti-Israel.
The Israelis returned to Iraqi Kurdistan prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 to train the peshmerga -- "those who face death" -- who were key U.S. allies.
Israelis have also been reported to be operating with Kurdish rebels in Iran along with U.S. and British agents, or Special Forces, in what Tehran claims is a systematic campaign to destabilize the Islamic Republic.
The Israelis have no history of supporting Turkey's Kurdish separatists. But if the crisis reaches the point where Israel, along with the United States, decides an Islamist government in Turkey is a liability, all things are possible.
Israel kept clear of the PKK because the Jewish state had maintained a discreet intelligence link with Ankara since the 1950s. That eventually produced a 1996 military cooperation pact.
Turkey, one of the first countries to recognize Israel in 1948, was strategically important to Israel because it was the only Muslim state with which it had relations. For all intents and purposes that is no longer the case.
The relationship began to change when the Islamist AKP took power in 2002 and Erdogan sought to restore Turkey's traditional role as a regional power.
For a time, Ankara put out feelers to the PKK in hopes of ending 26 years of bloodshed in which 40,000 people have perished. But in recent months, the separatists have resumed attacks.
PKK activity usually picks up in the spring when the mountain snows melt. But Ankara has been bracing for a surge in violence, particularly in urban areas, which could harm AKP prospects in upcoming elections.
If Israel and Turkey are hurtling toward a final split, with Erdogan's government more oriented toward Iran and Syria than the Jewish state, the gloves may indeed come off.
Ankara is reported to be seeking to assemble another aid flotilla to challenge Israel's blockade of Gaza.
Meantime, Erdogan has placed his loyalists in charge of Turkey's intelligence service and other security agencies, effectively closing links with Israeli intelligence and long-used back channels that Israel's leadership valued greatly.