Turkish-Israeli axis signifies a developing polarization in the Middle East. One pole consists of the Turkish-Israeli alliance backed by American power, and the other pole is the Iranian-Syrian axis which seems to be maintained and supported by the Russians. Such regional polarization joined with elevated levels of militarization is an omen of the things to come

By Ayesha Villalobos

The establishment of the Republic in 1923, the key features of Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East have been non-interference and non-intervention in the domestic politics of and conflicts between countries in the Middle East. The core foreign policy concern for Turkey since World War II, with regard to the Middle East, has been to minimize any possible danger to its security, and its Western oriented agenda. Due to this policy inclination and reciprocal historical suspicions, Turkey’s relations with its Middle East neighbours have always been edgy, if not openly antagonistic. Turkish-Israeli relations have always been characterized by a shared “common sense of strangeness” in a region dominated by non-democratic, principally Arab states. Despite their common pro-Western orientation, secularly alike, democratic institutions, and common economic interests, Turkey and Israel did not develop stable relationships during the first five decades after Israel’s foundation.

Turkey acknowledged the State of Israel on March 28, 1949 and elevated the diplomatic relations to ambassadorial level in 1952. Israeli efforts to create an alliance with Turkey to break the Arab barrier in the 1950s failed to increase the same level of enthusiasm in Ankara, with the exemption of a brief period in the late 1950s. There were two main reasons for the unwillingness of Turkey to respond Israel’s attempts.

  • First, Turkey was involved in the creation of the Baghdad Pact to counter the Soviet threat in the Middle East and could not afford to isolate the Arab states.
  • Second, Turkey’s policy towards the Middle East, as a general rule, was keeping an equal aloofness to every country in the region. In other words, Turkey did not want to be concerned in Arab-Israeli disputes. For a brief period in 1958, Turkey seemed to be highly interested in developing the cooperation with Israel on issues of Security, intelligence, and economic matters.

Two considerations seemed to encourage the Turkish rapprochement towards Israel.

  • First, increasing tensions with the Soviets in 1957 and 1958, coupled with a political crisis in Iraq and Syria increased the Turkish suspicion towards Arabs in confronting the Soviet threat. 
  • Second, Turkey felt isolated in the region against Soviets and as the Suez Crisis demonstrated in 1956, US appeared to be the new power in the Middle East. Turkey assumed, with the Israeli support, it can advance its relations with the United States.

The majority of the 1958 agreements were never implemented due to the military coup on May 27, 1960 deposed the government in Turkey and Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East returned to its traditional scene. The 1960s, this period were regarded as by benevolent neutrality towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, allowing Turkey to maintain its relations with Israel while evading the alienation of the Arab states. The period of 1970s and 1980s, Turkey pursued a more pro-Arab policy, chiefly due to the necessity of preserving good relations with the Arabs as the outcome of the oil crises in 1973 and 1977. For instance, Turkey supported the Arab resolution at the UN in 1975 that labels Zionism as a form of racism, and demoted its diplomatic relations with Israel. Furthermore, Turkey closed its consulate in Jerusalem after Israel declared Jerusalem as its permanent capital.

The pendulum started to sway towards Israel again in late 1987 as the oil prices plunged in the world markets. Additionally, then-Prime Minister Turgut Özal wanted to develop the relations with US, particularly with the Congress. Özal presume that the influential Jewish lobby in US could facilitate with this aspiration. As the Cold War ended, Turkish-Israeli relations had already started to reconcile once again. In December 1991, full diplomatic relations were re-established. Turkish policies towards Israel became increasingly overt and friendly in the first half of the 1990s.

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Ever-increasing significance of this relationship for both countries manifested itself with the frequency of high level visits in 1993 and 1994. Hikmet Çetin, for example, was the first-ever Turkish foreign minister to visit Israel in November 1993, Ezer Weizman, the President of Israel, visited Turkey in January 1994, and Turkish PM Tansu Çiller visited Israel in November 1994. There was also a remarkable increase in the military co-operation between the two countries, including meetings between high level officers from the Turkish and Israeli military and senior figures of the Israeli defense industries. A top secret security agreement on military technology was signed on March 13, 1994, followed by an unpublished concurrence of training exercises in 1995. Bi-annual meetings between senior level diplomats and military officials also transpired in 1995.

The year 1996 was the pinnacle of Turkish-Israeli relations. On February 23, 1996 Turkey and Israel signed a military co-operation accord; calling for joint training exercises, the exchange of military exercises, mutual port access for naval vessels and for each country’s planes to exercise in the other’s airspace for one week four times a year. There were other clandestine agreements that had not been made public at that time, particularly an intelligence collection and collaboration between the countries first and foremost against Syria, and secondarily against Iran. This has been confirmed by Turkish Deputy Chief of Staff Çevik Bir in a speech on April 1996 at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Defense Industry Co- Operation Agreement was ratified on August 28, 1996. It placed the framework for the transfer and exchange of military technology and expertise between countries, but principally from Israel to Turkey. By that time Israeli firms sealed lucrative defense contracts, such as the modernization of Turkey’s F-4 and F-5 combat aircrafts. In January 1998, Israel, Turkey and the US navies, held joint naval search and rescue exercises, named Reliant Mermaid, in the eastern Mediterranean, under the disguise of official humanitarian purposes, however in reality those exercises were similar to naval operations aimed at localizing and intercepting an enemy vessel.

The issue of co-operation against terrorism also plays a vital role in Turkish-Israeli relations. Israel played down Turkey’s call for joint action against the PKK and its main supporter Syria since 1993, in opposition that Israel did not need new enemies. On the other hand, that changed with the election of Binyamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister in Israel in May 1996, as he resolutely supported joint action against terrorist organizations and countries funding terrorist.

In conjunction with close military co-operation, this rapprochement produced extensive non-military ties ranging from academic exchanges to a free trade zone, from mutual investments in agriculture to selling Turkish water to Israel. As a result of these extensive relations the volume of bilateral trade rose from $100 million in 1991 to nearly $2 billion in 2000.

Even though the pace of the relations decelerated after 2000, they persist to be imperative for both countries. The attacks of September 11, 2001 once again confirmed the importance of a Turkish-Israeli alliance in a region that is full of radical Islamists and anti-Western dictators. In November 2002, the Turkish elections brought the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) to power. AKP declaring to be a conservative democratic party similar to the Christian Democrats in Europe. Nevertheless, it is mainly perceived as a moderate Islamist party by the international community. Notwithstanding the uncertainties of a possible regress in the Turkish-Israeli relations with the new moderate Islamist government, relations between Turkey and Israel have not been impinged on so far.

What are the motivating forces behind this alliance? For Turkey, four motives can be identified.

  • First, escalating importance of PKK terrorism during the 1990s and Turkish concerns about Syria’s support for PKK prompted Turkey to search for a greater leverage against Damascus. Furthermore, countering the regional ballistic missile threats, in particular emanating from Iran, and stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East were among the serious concerns for the Turkish military.
  • Secondly, Israel could replace European and American allies of Turkey as a trustworthy source of military technology and hardware, particularly when Turkey’s human rights records became an impediment for technology transfer and arms supplies from Western countries.
  • Thirdly, the Turkish elite perceived closer relations with Israel and enlisting the support of the American Jewish lobby as a mode to reinforce and intensify the relations with US.
  • Finally, an improved co-operation with Israel has also been seen as an affirmation of Turkey’s Western orientation and its commitment to secularism by most of the Kemalist elite in Turkey, particularly in the military.
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For Israel, three major motives can be identified.

  • First, the amalgamation of Turkey’s military power, its strategic location bordering Iran, Iraq, and Syria and its close ideological similarity with Israel, make Turkey an invaluable ally in the region. Co-operation with Turkey afforded Israel a “window” on the territories of both Iraq and Iran for both surveillance purposes and staging air assaults against Iran’s non-conventional weapons infrastructure if required. Syria has been “sandwiched” between Israel in the south and Turkey in the north, create enormous pressure on Damascus. In this manner, Turkey fortifies Israeli security and reduces Israel’s need to reach an agreement with Syria. Mutually; Iran and Syria forced to take into account the reality of the Turkish-Israeli axis when developing their military strategy, which is a massive element of uncertainty for those countries’ estimate. In short, “on a military-strategic level Turkey significantly fit the Israeli objectives of imposing pressure on Syria, presenting innovative options for potential air strikes on Iraq and Iran, and executing intelligence activity on Turkey’s southern neighbours.”
  • Second, Turkey already demonstrate itself as an vital market for Israel’s defense industry, which was in dire need of market expansion, the Turkish military forecast to spend $30 billion on modernization and new weapons acquisitions in the next decade, and continuing co-operation with Israel , increasing defense contracts being granted to Israeli firms.
  • Third, similar to Turkey, Israel also regarded its relation with Turkey as a means to strengthen its ties with the US as the synergy created from this alliance could amplify their mutual importance in the eyes of Washington. In addition, for the period of the mid- 1990s, Israel feared that the US would decrease its involvement in the Middle East, and saw Turkey as an alternative in case such a scenario would surface.
  • Finally, there are also a number of issues that could direct to severe problems between Turkey and Israel, such as political Islam in Turkey, growing anti-American sentiments in the Turkish public after the Iraqi invasion, and possible disagreements over Kurdish aspirations in Northern Iraq. Eventhough, none of them caused grave problems for the Turkish-Israeli alliance yet; nevertheless, those challenges are not to be ignored. Such circumstances in the Middle East are extremely salient to the actors of the region and the United States. A crisis among Turkey, Israel, Iran and Syria would undeniably destabilize the international regime and can threaten the global security. On November 10, 2011 OM article Israel’s War threat: Sheer Propaganda by Kourosh Ziabari he mentioned that “However, now even the most optimistic advocates of war with Iran within the fractured cabinet of Benjamin Netanyahu know that "empty vessels make the most noise" and that a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities will be practically the same as the evaporation of the Zionist entity. They are well aware of Iran's unequalled military might and the recent advancements and progresses in Iran's weaponry industry”.

On the outset, Turkey and Israel appear to share slight commonalities, other than a growing strategic relationship and a common antipathy toward most of their Middle Eastern neighbours. Evidently, Turkey is a geographically large country with a population of around seventy million, almost all of whom are Muslim. It is the descendant of a much larger state, the Ottoman state, which at its pinnacle governed much of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Europe. The Turks therefore are a proud race and deeply rooted “state tradition,” marked by respect, if not reverence, for the state and its rulers that has facilitated the modern rulers of the Turkish Republic to wield a significant control over the Turkish population for a great deal of its history. Israel, by contrast, is a petite country with a petite population—one tenth the size of Turkey’s—the majority of whom are Jews.

Albeit its biblical heritage, it is, unnecessary to say, a recent creation. Jews, unlike Turks, have no state tradition, a fact that Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben-Gurion was all too aware of when he attempted, with little success, to instil statism in Israeli political culture. It is not just the historical factor that sets Turkey and Israel distant. Socio-economically, Turkey remains a developing country; endeavour to liberate a great deal of its population out of poverty and unspeakable ‘Third World’ living conditions. Israel, on the other hand, has achieved a remarkable level of economic development, attaining a per capita income level equivalent to that of many states in Western Europe (although the distribution of that income, as in Turkey, is highly unequal). It would seemingly appear, then, that Turkey and Israel have few, if any, commonalities.

Instinctively so, fervent advocates of the Turkish-Israeli “entente”—which is by now well-established having survived the past two tumultuous years of Israeli-Palestinian brutality—habitually accentuate the shared sentiments of democratic and secular credentials of Turkey (despite the drum beat that Prime Minister Erdogan AKParty will transform Turkey to purely Islamic state ) and Israel as the basis for their strategic relationship. The depiction of both states as being secular and democratic is one that has been recurrently presented by politicians and senior officials on both sides and constantly manifested in the Turkish and Israeli media. The implication is that as the only two secular, democracies in the Middle East, Turkey and Israel have a natural affinity and common outlook in a hostile and dangerous Middle Eastern environment. This analysis (which has found a sympathetic audience in U.S. policymaking circles) can be challenged on various grounds, on the context of taking issue with the claim that Turkey and Israel are indeed such a bastions of secularism and democracy.

Presently, there is still no collective defense agreement between Turkey and Israel (or whether Turkey maintains its “mistress syndrome”) yet; the military cooperation agreements may direct one to surmise that Turkey and Israel are emerging as security partners in the Middle East. In the post-Cold War era, Turkey needs reliable partners in the Middle East to facilitate and fortify its hand and counterbalance those who have plot on Turkey. In the chaotic environment of the 1990s, for Turkey the most trustworthy prospective partner in view seems to be Israel. On the other hand, the Turkish-Israeli axis signifies a developing polarization in the Middle East. One pole consists of the Turkish-Israeli alliance backed by American power, and the other pole is the Iranian-Syrian axis which seems to be maintained and supported by the Russians. Such regional polarization joined with elevated levels of militarization is an omen of the things to come. What may have begun on Turkey's behalf as an idea to find an unfailing ally may evolve into an ugly conflict hence, whether the alliance will eventually help to preserve stability in the region remains to be proven.