Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan’s blunt condemnation of an alleged violation of the Turkey’s airspace by Israeli warplanes has dealt another blow to already deteriorating relations between the two countries.
In 1996 a military training agreement between Israel and Turkey was hailed by many as heralding a new strategic alignment in the eastern Mediterranean. Over the years that followed Israeli jets regularly used the Turkish air force base in Konya for training missions while Turkish pilots underwent specialized training in facilities belonging to the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in the Negev Desert. There was also extensive cooperation in the defense industry, with Israeli firms receiving a string of lucrative defense contracts. American Jewish lobby groups became Turkey’s strongest supporters in Washington. However, plans to underpin the relationship by transporting Turkish water to Israel came to nothing. While a number of disagreements over defense contracts, and allegation of corruption involving Israeli defense suppliers, soured relations between the two countries’ militaries.
Relations began to cool rapidly following the victory of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the Turkish general election of November 2002. Although the AKP’s leaders publicly reaffirmed Turkey’s commitment to friendship with Israel, much of the party’s grassroots support remained simply and viscerally anti-Semitic. After taking power, the AKP downplayed ties with Israel, while trying to form a closer relationship with other Muslim states in the Middle East, particularly its neighbors Syria and Iran. The last five years have seen an unprecedented increase in bilateral contacts and AKP leaders have become frequent visitors to both Damascus and Tehran.
On September 6, after the Syrian government claimed that Israeli warplanes had overflown its territory and dropped munitions onto deserted areas, fuel tanks belonging to IAF warplanes were found on the Turkish side of the country’s border with Syria. The assumption is that they were jettisoned in order to increase the IAF planes’ maneuverability as they sought to avoid Syrian ground fire.
On September 6, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement supporting the Syrian protests and informing the Israeli government that Ankara took “a harsh view of the invasion of Syrian airspace by the IAF” (Hurriyet, Milliyet, September 7).
On September 9, Syrian Foreign Minister Wallid Moallem flew to Ankara to seek Turkish support and met with Babacan, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul (Sabah, September 11). On September 10, Moallem and Babacan held a joint conference to condemn the IAF’s incursions on September 6.
The exact circumstances in which the IAF fuel tanks were deposited on Turkish territory remain unclear: not least whether the warplanes themselves entered Turkish airspace while flying close to the border or whether the tanks were carried across the border by their own momentum after being jettisoned. However, standing alongside Moallem, Babacan strongly condemned the incident.
“This is an unacceptable development for us,” he said. “We would like all the countries in the region to respect the sovereign rights of other countries and be meticulous in avoiding taking any steps that might create tensions. A wide-ranging investigation is being conducted into this matter. The country in question has been asked to provide an explanation in the very near future and the necessary contacts with Israel have been initiated. Turkey is a country which strives for peace and stability. It expects the other countries in the region to show mutual respect and conduct their relations on the basis of trust” (Hurriyet, September 11).
The tensions over the Israeli over flights come less than a month after the U.S.-based Jewish lobby group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) caused outrage in Turkey by announcing that it now accepted that the massacres and deportations of the Armenians by the Ottoman authorities in 1915-16 constituted a genocide. The accusation has always been strongly denied by Ankara, which, in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, has preferred to characterize the events of 1915-16 as the product of an Armenian uprising.
Israeli diplomats in Ankara have been circumspect in their reaction to Babacan’s denouncement. “When it comes to Syria, we can remain silent. But we owe the Turks an explanation,” said Alon Liel, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey (Sabah, September 11).
However, inside Israel, reactions have been less restrained. Several commentators have noted that Turkey repeatedly staged incursions into northern Iraq in 1990s in pursuit of members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and still has a brigade permanently deployed inside northern Iraq. In addition, Turkish F-16s frequently violate Iraqi airspace during bombing and reconnaissance missions against PKK militants (Jerusalem Post, September 11).