Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s visit to Ankara on February 12 and 13 attracted much attention from Turkish political and military officials (Milliyet, February 13). The visit may stand as a turning point in Turkish-Israeli relations by giving a boost to military cooperation between the two nations. Barak was expected to urge Ankara to buy the state-run Israel Aerospace Industries’ Ofek (Horizon) spy satellite for an estimated $300 million. “This deal has been under discussion for years, but Barak’s visit may help clinch it,” an Israeli security source said, adding that past talks had been held up by counter-bidding from a French aerospace firm. Turkey is currently taking delivery of around 10 Heron surveillance drones purchased from IAI for $200 million, the Israeli security source said, and has voiced a “preliminary interest” in Israel’s Arrow II ballistic anti-missile system (Turkish Daily News, February 12; Sabah, February 12). With the Heron drones delayed by production problems, Turkey will take delivery of an additional three drones by the end of the month until the other 10 are completed. Defense contracts—mostly in Israel’s favor—now constitute about $1.8 billion of the total $2.6 billion in trade volume between the two countries (Today’s Zaman, February 18).
Background to the Turkish-Israeli Defense Relationship
Turkey recognized the state of Israel only one year after its creation in 1948. Indeed, the relations between the Turks and Jews go back half a millennium to a time when the Ottoman sultan embraced Jews who were being persecuted and forced to flee Spain in 1492. Jews soon filled the elite ranks of the Ottoman administration and were always loyal to the sultan. Ottoman Jews also supported the Turkish War of Independence under the command of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk against the occupying powers in the aftermath of World War I.
Turkey’s relations with Israel did not gain much momentum during the greater part of the Republican era despite the early establishment of diplomatic relations. The conservative policies and Islamic overtones of the speeches of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes—who governed from 1950 to 1960—did not facilitate the efforts of his Israeli counterpart David Ben Gurion to launch comprehensive relations with Turkey in 1950. The Arab-Israeli wars of the 1960s and 1970s, Turkey’s dependency on Arab oil after the 1970s and the Palestinian Intifada movement in the 1980s and 1990s have all created major obstacles to attempts from both sides to widen the scope of bilateral relations.
The dramatic changes that took place in the world in the early 1990s had serious repercussions for the Middle East, creating powerful incentives for a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel in the political, military and economic domains. The 1990s also brought about far-reaching shifts in Turkey’s geo-strategic position. With the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO’s role lost some of its clarity. At the same time, the potential threats from the Middle East grew exponentially after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The subsequent creation of so-called “no-fly zones” in Iraq by the United States and Britain caused much political concern in Turkey as safe havens created for the Iraqi Kurdish population turned out to constitute a serious security problem. The northern sectors of the Iraqi territory that fell under the scope of the no-fly zone became a sanctuary for terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The intensification of PKK attacks from northern Iraq required Turkey to procure military equipment to counter them effectively. However, most of Turkey’s allies in the West were reluctant to provide the necessary equipment on the grounds that the Turkish military might use it against its own Kurdish population. Unfortunately, Turkey’s long-standing allies did not acknowledge the difference between Turkey’s Kurdish citizens who have always been loyal to the unity and the integrity of the country and the Kurds who had fallen into the trap of the separatist PKK, whose cadre of leadership was heavily dominated by Kurds from Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Israel appeared at that time to be the only country that could provide Turkey with everything it needed, ranging from military equipment that the special forces would need in their fight against terrorists to sound and timely intelligence about the location and logistical capabilities of the PKK. Israel’s role in the neutralization of PKK terrorism and its reported assistance in the capture of its leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 were highly significant measures and much appreciated in Turkey.
The commonality of perceived threats from neighboring states—namely Syria, Iraq and Iran—and the apparent challenges posed by their weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile capabilities was another factor that cemented strategic relations between Turkey and Israel throughout the 1990s. Thanks to a 1996 military cooperation agreement, Turkish military aircraft were upgraded in Israel, enhancing Turkey’s air power significantly. The agreement also enabled the air force and the naval units of both countries to use each other’s airspace and territorial waters. Hence, the military cooperation agreement provided Israel a “virtual strategic depth,” which was of vital significance for its security. Seen from this perspective, Turkish-Israeli strategic relations created a “win-win” situation for both countries. The airspace agreement was jeopardized by Israel’s unauthorized violation of Turkish airspace last September during an airstrike on a suspected nuclear facility in Syria. According to a Turkish diplomat involved in talks with Israel: “Israel knows that Turkey does not want to confront Iran or Syria” (Reuters, February 13).
The Defense Relationship Deteriorates
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001—which paved the way to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and its invasion of Iraq—had serious repercussions for Turkish-Israeli relations as well. The positive mood in relations took a negative turn because of the perceived role of Israel in bringing the United States to Iraq, thereby splitting the country along ethnic and sectarian lines—a result viewed as undesirable in Ankara. Allegations of secret deals between the Kurdish groups in northern Iraq and Israel provided further complications. After the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in the 2002 general elections with a significant proportion of their votes coming from the religious/conservative segments of Turkish society, statements from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and their leaders contributed to the deterioration of Israeli authorities’ perception of Turkey .
Even though reciprocal visits of top politicians on both sides continued according to schedule, the cool atmosphere in Turkish-Israeli relations lasted for nearly half a decade and a number of attempts at political reconciliation have not borne much fruit. For instance, news that Turkey may have played a facilitator role between Israel and Syria over the last few years has created some speculation as to whether such a development would help revive Turkish-Israeli relations (Al-Bayan [United Arab Emirates], February 4; Jerusalem Post, February 13; Today’s Zaman, February 14). However, it would be naive to have such expectations, basically for three reasons. First, Israel and Syria have several backchannels whereby they communicate to whatever extent is required by the two parties. Second, the United States has been playing a mediator’s role for a long time, regardless of Syria’s standing on the list of “terrorist states” maintained by the State Department. Third, even though there has been a normalization process in Turkish-Syrian relations since 1998—when Turkey coerced Syria to halt its support to the PKK—not much has been achieved in terms of substance between the two nations other than reciprocal high-level visits.
Different Threat Perceptions
It is questionable whether new arms sales will be enough to elevate relations between Turkey and Israel to the level where they were in the late 1990s, largely because there is a major difference between then and now regarding the degree of commonality in the threat perceptions of the two nations.
Compared to the 1990s, the threats perceived by Turkey’s political leaders from their Middle Eastern neighbors have seemingly diminished. For instance, Iran’s nuclear program is not considered to be a major threat to Turkey. This can be understood from Erdoğan statements emphasizing that Iran has the right to develop nuclear technology so long as it do not exploit these capabilities for weapons purposes (Today’s Zaman, February 11). Turkey’s relations with Syria are also far from problematic. While there is much to be done, Turkey and Syria have had peaceful and friendly relations for almost a decade now. As for Iraq—so far as the central authority in Baghdad is concerned—relations can be seen as improving rather fast. Even though the presence of PKK terrorists in the northern districts of Iraq controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has cast a shadow on Turkish-Iraqi relations, the level of threat perceived from today’s Iraq can in no way be compared to the threat posed by the Saddam regime.
Israel’s threat perception, on the other hand, has not undergone similar improvements, with the exception of abolishing the military threat of the Saddam regime. However, the future of Iraq is still uncertain. On the Syrian front, there may have been a slight decline in the threat perceived by Israel with the coming to power of Bashar al-Assad, who seems to be a more pragmatic leader than his father Hafez, ruler of Syria for nearly three decades.
But the support of Syrian authorities to Hamas and the role of Syrian intelligence in domestic political conflicts in Lebanon still constitute major threats to the security of Israel. Above all, Israel is concerned with the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, especially with the statements of the top Iranian leadership who suggest “the destruction of the Zionist regime.” The Iranian nuclear issue was brought up during talks between Barak and Turkish officials (AFP, February 12).
Against this background and in the absence of the powerful glue of common threat perceptions by Turkey and Israel, it remains to be seen how far relations can be advanced and whether they can reach the strategic level again. Moreover, the deterioration of Israel’s image in the Turkish public eye—a by-product of the post-9/11 trauma experienced in bilateral relations—will continue to be a major factor in the ongoing Turkish-Israeli defense relationship.
1. Mustafa Kibaroğlu, “Clash of Interest Over Northern Iraq Drives Turkish-Israeli Alliance to a Crossroads,” The Middle East Journal, Spring 2005, Vol. 59, No. 2, Middle East Institute, Washington DC, pp. 246-264.