On February 12, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak arrived in Ankara for a two-day visit to try to boost defense ties between the two countries, with the proposed sale of the Ofek (“Horizon”) spy satellite topping the agenda.
Defense industry ties between Turkey and Israel were given a major boost by the signing of a bilateral defense industry cooperation agreement in August 1996. In the years that followed, Israeli companies were awarded a number of lucrative defense contracts, including the upgrade of Turkey’s F-4 and F-5 warplanes and the modernization of its M-60 tanks. In February 1996 Turkey and Israel also signed a defense-training agreement, under which Israeli air force pilots have been able to undergo training at Turkish facilities in Anatolia, while Turkish pilots have had similar access to air force facilities in Israel.
At the time, some observers suggested that the agreement would form the basis of a strategic realignment in the eastern Mediterranean. However, on the Turkish side, the momentum for both of the 1996 agreements came from the Turkish military. Civilian governments in Turkey have always been wary of establishing very close ties with Israel, none more so than the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which first came to power in November 2002. In recent years, even the enthusiasm of the Turkish military has been tempered by reservations about the quality of some of the work undertaken by Israeli firms and allegations in the Turkish media that illegal payments were made to Turkish officials involved in the procurement process.
Nevertheless, over the last few months there have been signs that Turkey’s desire to improve its surveillance capabilities, particularly against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has led to a revival in defense industry ties. Turkey is currently in the process of taking delivery of 10 Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries. The deal, worth around $183 million, was first signed at the beginning of 2005. After meeting with Barak on February 12, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul praised the role played by Israeli UAVs in intelligence gathering against the PKK both inside Turkey and in northern Iraq (CNNTurk, February 12).
Turkey does not have its own surveillance satellites. Over the last two months, Turkish warplanes have conducted seven major air raids against PKK assets in northern Iraq. Much of the intelligence used to identify the targets is believed to have come from imaging provided by the United States. Turkey has long sought to acquire its own satellite capability. However, its plans to purchase the Ofek for an estimated $300 million ran into difficulties over Israel’s insistence that Turkey would not fly the satellite over militarily sensitive sites in Israel, such as its nuclear facilities. The main aim of Barak’s visit is to revive the Ofek project, although it is currently unclear whether there is room for compromise over the Israeli limits on the satellite’s use. After meeting with Barak on February 12, Gonul merely told reporters that the proposed purchase of the Ofek was being discussed at a “technical level” (Haaretz, February 12).
However, even if the two countries succeed in increasing cooperation in the defense industry, there is still no indication of a reversal in the deterioration in their political relationship since the AKP came to power. Although the AKP leadership vigorously insists that it is not anti-Semitic, its almost instinctive sympathy for other Muslims means that it is impossible to argue that it views Israel objectively. There has also been a marked increase in hostility toward Israel in the pro-AKP media since Israel’s ill-fated incursion into Lebanon in summer 2006.
In January 2008, Israel delivered a diplomatic note of protest to the Turkish Embassy in Israel after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly condemned what he described as Israel’s disproportionate response to attacks by Qassam rockets launched from Palestinian territory, bluntly stating: “We cannot accept a practice that amounts to punishing nearly 2 million innocent people due to some rocket attacks. … When we ask how many Israeli citizens died as a result of these rocket attacks, we do not get an answer” (Haaretz, January 24).
When Erdogan met with Barak on the evening of February 12, he took the opportunity to repeat his criticism, warning him that he regarded Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians as unacceptable (Milliyet, February 13). It will not have gone unnoticed in Israel, that Erdogan’s condemnation of the country’s policy towards the Palestinians is in marked contrast to his refusal, during the official visit to Ankara last month by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, to criticize the Sudanese government over its policy toward Darfur, which Turkish President Abdullah Gul described merely as a “humanitarian tragedy” (see EDM, January 22).