Turkish-Israeli relations face a new test over Ankara’s decision to change the format of a joint international military exercise to a national exercise. Following some Israeli officials’ charges that the move was based on political motivations, the Turkish side called on Tel Aviv to behave more sensibly.
Turkey has held the Anatolian Eagle exercise regularly since 2001 in an attempt to promote closer air defense cooperation among friendly nations, including the United States and Israel. The exercises were scheduled to be conducted in three different stages throughout the year. However, the Turkish Chief of the General Staff General Ilker Basbug announced on October 7 that in consultation with other participants, the international part of the third stage of the exercise, which was to be carried out on October 10-23, would be postponed. Instead, the exercise would be executed as a national operation in the central Anatolian city of Konya (www.tsk.tr, October 7).
Israeli media reports quoted Israeli military officials who were arguing that the participation of Israel in the drills, which would have included the United States and NATO, was prevented as a result of the recent row between Turkey and Israel over its offensive into the Gaza Strip earlier this year. They maintained that the United States and Italy withdrew from the exercises in reaction to Israel’s exclusion by Turkey (Jerusalem Post, October 11). A statement from the Israeli Defense Force Spokesman’s Office argued that “the exercise was postponed due to a Turkish decision to change the composition of the participants and not allow the Israeli Air Force to participate, a decision we were informed of only several days ago” (www.israelnationalnews.com, October 12).
However, in an exclusive interview with CNN the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also contributed to the controversy. Although a U.S. embassy representative in Ankara said that the exercise was only postponed, the CNN report considered the developments as effectively “scrapping” the exercises. Moreover, the report interpreted Davutoglu’s remarks to mean that Turkey deliberately excluded Israel from the exercise, “partly because of Ankara’s criticism of Israel’s Gaza offensive almost a year ago” (www.cnn.com, October, 12).
In a written statement, the Turkish foreign ministry stressed that the developments were clearly communicated to Turkey’s partners and it would be incorrect to attribute the cancellation of the international part of the exercise to any political motives. The statement also added that the remarks and evaluations by Israeli officials were unacceptable and Turkey invited them to use their common sense (www.mfa.gov.tr, October 12). According to the Turkish press, diplomatic circles in Turkey were also disturbed by the CNN report, which they described as a misrepresentation. They maintained that the cancellation of the exercises was not meant to punish Israel in any way, but they were purely technical (Today’s Zaman, October 13). The announcements by the foreign ministry and the chief of staff, however, did not explain the reasons that led Turkey to reconfigure the exercises as a national activity. Other Turkish press sources, citing unnamed officials, however, maintained that “there was government pressure on the military to postpone the drills (Hurriyet Daily News, October 12).
The joint Turkish-Syrian High Level Strategic Council meeting which was held this week also added to discomfort on the part of Israeli officials (ANKA, October 13). Responding to reporters’ questions on these developments following his meeting with his Syrian counterpart Velid Muallim in Aleppo, Davutoglu reiterated that everyone in the region should behave sensibly. “Israel should respect sacred values. If they show respect, a peaceful environment will emerge in the region,” Davutoglu added. Muallim praised this decision and argued that “this decision reflects Turkey’s stance against Gaza. It pleased us” (Cihan, October 13).
Speaking to al-Arabiya television in an interview, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also said “we listened to the voice of our people,” and excluded Israel from the exercise. His comments were confirmed by a Turkish government spokesman on Wednesday (www.worldbulletin.net, October 14).
The recent row over the Anatolian Eagle exercises mirrors another controversy earlier this year. When Turkey held its first ever military exercises with Syria on the joint border in April, Israeli officials expressed their displeasure, with the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak describing the exercises as “disturbing.” Again the Turkish government and military officials reacted to these remarks, raising bilateral tension (EDM, May 1).
Whatever the real motivations behind Ankara’s decision to change the format of the Anatolian Eagle military exercise, this episode shows the growing sense of mistrust between the two countries that were once considered as forming an undeclared alliance in the region. Despite the formal statements from both sides aimed at healing the damage caused by Turkey’s harsh reaction to Israel’s military operations in Gaza, as epitomized by Erdogan’s walkout from the Davos meeting (EDM, January 30), it appears that it will be difficult to revert back to the pre-Davos period. Since Davos, Tel Aviv has expressed clearly its reluctance to accept Turkish mediation between Syria and Israel, arguing that Turkey has lost its impartial position (EDM, July 23).
Following the latest row, Israeli defense sources and analysts maintained that Tel Aviv might seek to retaliate against such actions by Ankara. They suggested that Israel might reconsider the sale of advanced weapons systems to Turkey, and that the Israeli lobby might cease to support Turkey against the Armenian lobby’s activities in Washington over the alleged Armenian “genocide” issue. Israeli analysts maintain that such controversial steps by Ankara raise questions as to whether Turkish foreign policy has been reoriented toward the Middle East (Jerusalem Post, October 12). This question is increasingly being asked in Western political circles. Indeed, in implicit confirmation of the arguments of the skeptics of the new Turkish foreign policy, as Turkey’s relations with Israel worsen, it has started to deepen ties with its Arab neighbors, including Syria (EDM, September 18). The AKP will come under increasing pressure to convince its international partners that its new openings in foreign policy to normalize ties with the Middle East is complementary to its traditional foreign policy priorities, and not a drift from its Western orientation.