Turkey’s Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul visited Israel on October 29 and 30 to expedite the Turkish Armed Forces’ (TAF) purchase of 10 Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) from Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI). He was accompanied by a large delegation that included Undersecretary for Defense Industries Murad Bayar and several military officers and civilians. The meeting also provided opportunities to discuss regional diplomacy and bilateral relations between Turkey and Israel.
In 2005 Turkey awarded a $180 million contract for the off-the-shelf purchase of 10 UAVs to IAI and Elbit Systems, which outbid offers for the U.S. Predator UAV (Zaman, October 25). In response to the acceleration of the PKK’s terror campaign, the TAF’s new counter-terrorism strategy has been centered on the effective use of intelligence (Terrorism Focus, August 12). In addition to real-time images provided by U.S. satellites, the reconnaissance missions conducted by UAVs have come to play a crucial role in the air strikes against PKK strongholds in Northern Iraq and PKK militants inside Turkey.
Despite the urgency of the TAF’s order, however, the Israeli contractor has postponed the delivery of 10 Herons to Turkey several times over the past year, citing technical failures in the camera system that will be produced by a Turkish subcontractor. In addition to accelerating domestic programs to develop national UAVs and the purchase of three Israeli Aerostar Tactical UAVs, Turkey leased Herons from Israel in 2007 (Yeni Safak, December 28, 2007). When one Heron at the TAF’s disposal crashed in July due to engine problems, Israel could not replace it because it did not have one available in its inventory (Referans, October 21). Turkey instead bought a smaller UAV called the Searcher.
The shorter range of the Aerostars has hindered the flow of intelligence for the TAF. Surveillance shortages are speculated to have played a part in the TAF’s failure to prevent the PKK attack on Aktutun outpost, which claimed the lives of 17 soldiers on October 3 (Milliyet, October 18). Domestic debate on this attack has refocused attention on the difficulties Turkey has experienced with surveillance aircraft. On the eve of the trip, Gonul was urged to put pressure on Israel to speed up the delivery of the UAVs (ANKA, October 21).
Gonul visited Israel at the invitation of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to observe the test flights of the Heron UAVs. Following the demonstrations, Gonul found the drones’ performance excellent and remarked that they would fill the requirements successfully and strengthen Turkey’s military capabilities. Reiterating the urgency of the UAVs for Turkey, Gonul noted that two of the Herons would be delivered to the TAF by the end of November and the remaining eight in early 2009 (Yeni Safak, October 31). At a meeting with Barak and Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Gonul stated that cooperation with Israel in defense projects would not be limited to UAVs, although he declined to name any other specific projects (Milliyet, October 31).
For its part, the Israeli side also is keen on deepening its partnership in defense projects with Turkey. When Barak visited Ankara in February as Gonul’s guest, he called for greater cooperation between the two countries and emphasized that Israel did not harbor any concerns about transferring sensitive technology to Turkey (Voice of America, February 12). Barak was particularly eager to convince Turkey to purchase Israel’s Ofeq spy satellites (Jerusalem Post, February 11). Israel’s flexible attitude has definitely been welcome to Ankara, because most of Turkey’s ambitious defense procurement and modernization programs contain stringent rules requiring greater domestic contribution in production or technology transfers to Turkish companies. Given the problems that U.S. weapons producers face in obtaining Turkish defense contracts due to the Turkish procurement policy, Israel provides an alternative for the Turkish military to obtain high-tech weapons systems for its fight against the PKK and to upgrade its aging weapons systems with larger domestic input. It has been reported, however, that the TAF is close to acquiring U.S.-made Predators to meet its urgent needs but is constrained by the Turkish procurement rules (Today’s Zaman, October 29).
Vecdi Gonul also met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipora “Tzipi” Livni, both of whom emphasized Turkey’s strategic importance in the Middle East and the value they attached to maintaining bilateral relations. They commended Turkey’s constructive efforts to contribute to stability and peace in the Middle East, in particular its role in the recent Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Livni, however, used this opportunity to express Israel’s displeasure with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Turkey in August, and she called on Turkey to support international efforts to increase pressure on Iran. Israel and the United States have been critical of Turkey’s warm relations with Iran at a time when they are seeking to isolate Tehran on the nuclear issue (see EDM August 14). Gonul avoided confronting his Israeli hosts but clarified Turkey’s position by maintaining that Turkey would continue to develop relations with all countries in this volatile region on the principles of nonintervention in domestic affairs and good-neighborliness (CNNTurk, October 30; Milliyet, October 31). At a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Gonul discussed possibilities for building industrial zones on the West Bank (Zaman, October 31).
Political differences aside, the two countries share a common ground: Turkey needs cooperation with Israel to fill its deficiencies in combating the PKK, while Israel views Turkey as a lucrative market for its sophisticated weapons systems. The recent visit reaffirmed both parties’ determination and ability to put an occasional divergence on regional diplomatic issues aside and maintain cooperation in mutually beneficial projects.