Turkey and Israel: Strategic Partners in Discord

The strategic link between Turkey and Israel has been badly broken to the detriment of pe

Date: Issue 22 - September 2010

The shared history of the Turkish and Jewish peoples is rich and singularly positive. They have enjoyed friendly ties throughout history and the Turks have helped the Jewish people in their times of difficulty and hardship. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel’s statehood and maintained uninterrupted diplomatic ties with Israel despite the pressure of the Arab states and the strains and vicissitudes experienced over time in their own relations. In the 1990s, the relationship began to flourish in the political, military, economic and commercial spheres. After the signing of a free trade agreement in 1997, trade volume increased by seven fold to a level of more than 3 billion US dollars per annum. Israeli tourists came to Turkey in large numbers. There were frequent high-level diplomatic visits between the two countries. This positive trend prevailed until about 2008.

However, things began to deteriorate rapidly in the aftermath of the Israeli military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in late 2008. From that point on, the Turkish Government exhibited an increasingly critical attitude toward Israel. There was the well-known “one-minute” outburst in Davos. Following Israel’s attack at the end of May (2010) on the aid flotilla, Turkey withdrew its Ambassador and relations hit their lowest point. It conditioned the resumption of normal relations on a series of demands. Turkey is asking for an apology from Israel, compensation to the families of those killed, Israel agreeing to the establishment of an UN-led international investigation of the incident, the return of the detained ships and the lifting of the naval blockade against Gaza. So far, Israel has only taken some limited steps towards the loosening of the blockade in response to the pressure from the international community. There is no indication now that Israel intends to meet any of Turkey’s demands. Given the current domestic political configurations in the two countries, the chances of normalization in the near future are quite dim. At present, the political atmosphere is acrimonious.

Why the relationship has regressed so deeply has a lot to do with the questionable policies pursued by Israel. However, it also has a lot to do with the paradigm shift in Turkish society, propelled and guided by the particular outlook of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on domestic and foreign affairs. This shift is responsible for the difference between being critical of Israel on the one hand and being anti-Israel on the other.

One dimension that is likely to suffer the most from this downward spiral in the relations between Turkey and Israel is the defense-military component in the bilateral relationship. The defense cooperation started in earnest in mid-1990 when Turkey and Israel signed two separate agreements. The first (February 1996) was on military training. The second (August 1996) was on cooperation in defense industries. Both agreements set up their own follow-up and monitoring mechanisms that met regularly. In the years from 1996 on, hundreds of Israeli officers came to Turkey and many Turkish officers received training in Israel.

During the period 1996-2008, the military-to-military exchanges blossomed into a robust and complex relationship, dubbed as a “strategic partnership”. There were more than twenty major projects, including the modernization and upgrading of F-4 and F-5 jet aircraft, M-60 tanks and helicopters. Turkey became a lucrative market for Israeli military products such as rockets and unmanned aircraft as well as advanced military technology. Both sided benefited from this relationship. Turkey was getting high quality products; Israel was earning money. One particular advantage for Turkey was that Israel was providing critical high-tech products that the US and other allies were unwilling to sell to Turkey. A gain of special importance for Israel was that it was enjoying the psychological comfort of having such a strong bond in defense matters with a heavyweight like Turkey, reducing its sense of isolation in the region.

The military cooperation encompassed a range of different activities. There were joint naval exercises and search and rescue operations in the eastern Mediterranean with the participation of the US and observers from Jordan. In addition, Israeli air force enjoyed the privilege of training its air force pilots at facilities offered by Turkey, an important privilege for Israel with its extremely limited airspace. In the same vein, Turkey invited Israel to participate in air force drills along with NATO members. On the other hand, while we cannot know the exact extent of intelligence cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries, we can safely state that two sides have over the years engaged in a healthy exchange of intelligence over a wide range of issues. Israel purchased uniforms, boots and similar supplies from Turkey. Turkey and Israel also worked together in joint research and development projects concerning defense-related issues.

The Turkish response to the flotilla attack has been primarily in the military-defense field. Turkey immediately cancelled three different joint military exercises and called off a long-planned air drill at the last minute to prevent Israel’s participation. A number of military contracts in the pipeline have been put in deep freeze, if not altogether cancelled. Consultative mechanisms have come to a halt. Intelligence cooperation may have ended. Even before the flotilla attack I was told (May 6, 2010) by an Israeli general at a conference at Netanya College that the level of military cooperation had already been reduced to a minimum in the last two years. From a projected volume of about 2 billion US dollars, the defense contracts shrunk to less than 100 million in 2007-2008.

What is clear is that the Turkish-Israeli military and defense connection has already suffered severe damage, a component dependent on the state of political relations between the two countries. The Turkish Government has painted itself into a corner though it could and should have managed the tensions with Israel with wisdom and moderation, rather than emotion and anger. On the other hand, Israel made the mistake of not responding more flexibly to Turkish demands after the flotilla incident and wrongly assumed it could afford to alienate Turkey. Under the circumstances, the prospect of recovery of trust and mutuality between Turkey and Israel is very distant indeed. The Turkish-Israeli strategic partnership provided a cushion of stability for the whole area. Now that comfort zone is gone. This does not augur well for the region. A functional Turkish-Israeli strategic partnership is perhaps of greater importance for the Arab states of the region than it is for the two countries themselves. With Israel no longer enjoying the goodwill of Turkey, Iran might feel more emboldened with its activities in the region, which in turn might trigger a radical response from Israel. Turkey is unfortunately no longer an arbiter in the Middle East conflict, but almost a party to it. Hence, the Middle East region is today pregnant to further instabilities. This makes a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel all the more urgent.