Turkey-Israeli Defense Relations under Strain

By Richard Weitz

Photo credit: Israeli flags are burnt during a protest in Turkey, AFP/GETTY
(as printed in the Telegraph, June 6th, 2010)

On the heels of a flawed June 1, 2010 Gaza maritime interception operation, diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel are at an unprecedented low. Three of the six ships in the Gaza flotilla came from Turkey, including the largest, which was the site of an armed clash that killed several Turkish nationals wounding many others. The Turkish government has responded by canceling military exercises and defense agreements with Israel as well as by recalling its envoy from Tel Aviv. Further exacerbated by other divisive issues, the once thriving bilateral security ties between Israel and Turkey is under great strain. Although some Israeli-Turkish arms sales are expected to continue, Turkish authorities will likely seek to manufacture more weapons systems, which were previously imported from Israel or acquired from other foreign suppliers. Other NATO countries, including the United States, provide an obvious source, but so does Russia, whose defense companies have launched a strong campaign to expand their military sales to Turkey.

During the second half of the twentieth-century and the first decade of the twenty-first, several strategic concerns led Israel and Turkey to collaborate closely on defense and other security issues. Given that both are non-Arab nations with strong historical and cultural ties, Israel and Turkey often interpret regional security developments from a similar perspective. Turkey received Israeli assistance on many difficult security issues during and after the Cold War, while the latter acquired a powerful regional ally, which proved especially important after Israel lost its Iranian ally, the Shah, following Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. The Israeli-Turkey partnership has included weapons contracts worth billions of dollars; joint military exercises and reciprocal training opportunities; and military, intelligence, and defense technology collaboration. In recent years, however, bilateral tensions over Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians as well as due to the emergence of an avowedly Islamic government in Ankara has presented serious, perhaps insurmountable barriers to a continuation of a comprehensive defense alliance between the two countries.

Formal relations between the modern states of Israel and Turkey date back to March 1949, when Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the newly formed Jewish state. Until the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979, Turkey remained the only Muslim nation to have diplomatic ties with Israel. Mutual strategic concerns led the two states to forge a unique geopolitical balance in the Middle East. Israelis reached out to Turkey as a crucial partner in helping to ensure Israel’s security, while the partnership reaffirmed Turkey’s predominantly Western orientation in international affairs, while perceived common threats posed to both countries underpinned their defense relationship. The Turkish and Israeli national security establishments perceived themselves as besieged Middle Eastern outliers who needed to band together. Turkey’s primary military threats have historically emanated from either pro-Soviet socialist regimes, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Hafez Assad’s Syria or theocracies such as Iran. Israelis likewise felt besieged by hostile Arab neighbors aligned with Moscow or under the influence of zealous religious elements. In addition, these states also sponsored terrorists hostile to Israel and Turkey. Syria served as headquarters of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has conducted numerous terrorist attacks on Turks, and gave PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan asylum in Syria until 1997. Syrians also supported Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Assad’s regime in Damascus also allegedly serves as the conduit for the safe transport of Iranian arms sales to its proxy, Hezbollah. Turkey has also had intense conflicts over water rights and border lands with Syria.

The end of the Cold War actually facilitated their defense ties by removing several obstacles to a more cooperative and publicly supported alliance between Israel and Turkey. For example, as more Arab states began normalizing relations with Israel, Turkey’s close ties with Israel could be seen as less of a departure from its traditionally cautious and hands-off approach to the Middle East. Israel’s participation in the Middle East peace process made it easier for Turkey to defend its policies as being simultaneously pro-Arab and pro-Israel. Having served as critical stalwarts against the spread of communism throughout the Cold War, moreover, both states wanted to ensure that their strategic value to the West would continued into the new era.

As a result of these conditions, defense cooperation between Israel and Turkey continued to grow during the 1990s, expanding to include joint military exercises and increased bilateral arms sales. In November 1994, Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çiller’s paid a visit to Tel Aviv in which she described the partnership between the two countries as a “strategic relationship.” Çiller signed a formal defense cooperation agreement with Israel in February 1996. It established a broad framework for collaboration that expanded long-standing intelligence ties, initiated joint military exercises and increased military exchanges, and improved coordinated bilateral defense planning. The agreement also included provisions for carrying out electronic surveillance flights and intelligence sharing to neutralize mutual threats, paving the way for regular joint exercises between the two nations’ army and navy. Moreover, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) gained access to Turkey’s vast airspace for in-flight pilot training and Israeli helicopters gained the use of Turkish bases. Turkish planes also trained in Israel regularly starting in June of that year. Israel reaped strategic rewards from this training in Anatolian airspace by being able to fly close to hostile states—such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran—in order to gather valuable intelligence. Benefiting from another geographical feature that Israel lacks, the Bolu Mountains served as a training ground for Israeli snow commandos. The agreements have also involved the United States, which began participating in trilateral “Reliant Mermaid” search-and-rescue operations in the eastern Mediterranean in 1998.

The 1990s even saw the two countries publicize their joint military ties in a move to enhance their combined deterrent capabilities. For example, Turkey highlighted its connections with Israel to reinforce its threat to destroy any Russian-made S-300 SAMs delivered to the Government of Cyprus. These surface-to-air missiles could threaten Turkish warplanes defending the Turkish separatists on the northern half of the island. One reason the alliance continued despite a lack of public support in Turkey has been due to the influence of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF). The TAF succeeded in coercing Necmettin Erbakan, the first Islamist prime minister of Turkey, to reverse his initial opposition and implement the agreement before being ousted by the military the following year.

During the 1990s, Turkey developed important arms supply ties with Israel. According to some estimates, these relations have accounted for more than half of the value of their bilateral trade relationship in recent years—amounting to approximately $2.6 billion in 2007 and $2.9 billion in 2009. Starting in 1996, Turkey and Israel engaged in joint production of Popeye-1 Air-to-ground missiles in a contract worth around $150 million. Turkey soon also awarded Israeli defense firms some $700 million worth of contracts to upgrade one hundred Turkish F-4 and F-5 fighter planes (colloquially known as the “Phantom Fleet”) as well as provide rockets and electronic equipment to the Turkish Armed Forces. In 2002, Turkey gave Israeli Military Industries another $700 million contract to modernize 170 Turkey M60 tanks. Israel Aerospace Industries partnered with Turkish firms in a joint venture that in 2005 won a contract worth almost $200 million dollars and supplied Turkey with 10 unmanned aerial vehicles, along with related surveillance equipment.

On the Turkish side, the benefits of increased cooperation have also included learning about Israel’s expertise in the “security zone” of Lebanon, which helped Turkey prevent penetration by PKK forces across its borders with Syria and Iraq. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) also provided training and supplies to Turkish security forces monitoring its borders between Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Israel in turn was in a better position to interrupt trafficking of arms from Iran to Hezbollah that reportedly occurs near the Iranian-Syrian-Turkish border regions. After 1996, bi-annual meetings between their defense establishments, as well as other exchanges of military officers and defense officials, further strengthened the partnership. In early October 1997, Israel’s Chief of Staff Amnon Shahak visited Turkey and made arrangements to conduct joint naval exercises and enhance intelligence sharing. The visit by Shahak and many other high-ranking Turkish and Israeli officials led the way for further strategic gains on both sides of the alliance. For Israel, it constituted its highest level of security cooperation with a country other than the United States. According to General Çevik Bir, this increased cooperation helped Turkey coerce Syria to end its asylum for PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. After an earthquake devastated northwestern Turkey in 1999, Israeli soldiers led international rescue efforts there, with one complex of prefabricated homes in the region subsequently named the “Israeli village.” The September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent global war on terror also served as catalysts for strengthening Israeli-Turkish strategic relations. Both states were entrenched in struggles with terrorist groups before 9/11. After 2001, they were key players in U.S. efforts to root out Islamic extremism.

After coming to power, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Islamic Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP), initially continued the close Turkish-Israeli security ties. Following a string of terrorist bombing attacks in November 2003 against two synagogues, a bank, and the British Consulate that left 57 people dead and 700 wounded Istanbul, Erdogan accepted the need for intelligence and counterterrorist cooperation with Israel. Israeli Public Security Minister Tsahi Hanegbi visited Turkey in December 2003 and forged a new agreement whereby Turkish police would train with Israeli police, leading to an intensified relationship between the two countries’ internal security establishments.

In September 2007, the Jerusalem Post reported that Turkey had provided Israel with intelligence on Syria. Prior to an IAF flyover into Syrian territory, the TAF gave Israeli pilots authorization to use Turkish airspace and provided “precise information regarding targets in Syria that were to be hit by Israeli planes.” Signaling the rift between the military establishment and the AKP, the TAF reportedly did not inform Prime Minister Erdogan prior to the arrangement. On security issues, the TAF, Turkey’s intelligence community, and its police forces have typically favored maintaining strong security ties Israel. Conversely, the Foreign Ministry, Executive Office of the Prime Minister, and pubic opinion have tended to advocate a weaker relationship between Turkey and Israel.

In recent years, Israel’s policies towards Gaza have increasing alienated Erdogan and other members of the AKP. After Israel’s fatal incursion into Gaza and assault on Rafah in 2004, which killed more than 60 people and left some 1,600 homeless, Erdogan first used the term “state terrorism” in characterizing Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, with whom he personally had great sympathy. Relations deteriorated following Israel’s military attack on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in December 2008 designed to coerce Palestinian militants from launching rocket attacks against nearby Israeli civilians. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009, Erdogan stormed off the stage after getting into a public altercation with Israeli President Simon Peres at the end of a debate over the Gaza War. The Turkish leader has also shown an inclination to improve relations with Iran despite its government’s harsh rhetoric regarding Israel. He frequently criticizes Western governments for seeking to sanction Iran for its nuclear activities while downplaying Israel’s failure to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Israelis have looked askance at Turkish-Brazilian efforts to mediate the dispute.

Syria and Turkey have improved their bilateral relations since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Syrian government stopped supporting the PKK and Syria dropped claims to Turkey’s Hatay province. Bilateral trade has increased. Turkey recently conducted its first-ever joint land forces exercise with Syria, symbolizing the strategic rapprochement between these two former rivals. At the same time, Syrian-Israeli relations remained strained despite Turkish efforts to mediate their dispute. Turkish officials have tended to blame Israel more than Syria for the failure of these mediation efforts.

All these sources of Israel-Turkey tension have negatively affected the weapons trade between the two countries. For its part, the Israeli government in April 2010 decided to suspend the sale of advanced military platforms to Turkey because of the deteriorating relationship, exemplified also by Turkey’s decision to deny Israeli military aircraft rights to participate in NATO military exercises in Turkey. Israel declined Turkey’s request to purchase different military systems, including an anti-tank guided weapon and a naval missile system.

Until now, the temporary freeze has not excluded the option of some sales on a case-by-case basis. The Israeli government has been willing to sell Turkey a non-line-of-sight anti-tank guided weapon, a theater defense naval missile system, and a heavy infantry fighting vehicle. Another exemption has applied to  joint discussions with Colombia about the sale of upgraded M60 main battle tanks (MBTs). Thus, Israel Military industries and Turkey’s Aselsan produced more than 170 upgraded General Dynamics M60A1 MBTs for the Turkish military. A Colombian representative attended the handover ceremony. In March 2010, the Israeli army chief visited Turkey for the first time in five years to participate in a NATO conference on terrorism and international cooperation, as well as to hold a meeting with his Turkish counterpart.

The strained bilateral relationship has also not yet further impaired the long-delayed implementation of the $183 million contract for Israel to provide Turkey with its advanced Heron unmanned air vehicles, four of which were delivered in March 2010; six more are scheduled for transfer in November 2010. On June 2, Turkey Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said the current Gaza crisis would not disrupt the planned delivery of the Heron drones to Turkey. Even so, the reason for the latter sale may be due most to Israelis’ desire to avoid the international arbitration Turkey has threatened to file in case Israel sought to breach the sales contract.

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***Posted on June 9th, 2010

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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