Tensions Between Turkey and Israel: Temporary Spat or Strategic Shift?

Dr. Mustafa Abdel Aziz Morsi: Tensions Between Turkey and Israel: Temporary Spat or Strategic Shift?

  • 23 November 2009

It is difficult to separate internal developments in any country from its foreign policy orientations. Some analysts even say that foreign policy orientations of any country are a practical manifestation of its internal policy requirements. From this perspective, analyzing relations between Turkey and Israel require identification of the motivations of the two parties in the first place, and then an assessment of their mutual interests in light of regional and international developments.

From a historical standpoint, Turkey, Iran (during the Shah’s reign) and Israel represented a regional axis under the US leadership. The objective was to oppose Arab nationalist movement that had witnessed a noticeable surge in the 1950s and 1960s. This required an early recognition of Israel by Turkey (in 1949, a few months after the declaration of the state of Israel) and the adoption of a direction that supported a strategic relation with it, especially as Ankara saw in this a confirmation of its Western tendency consecrated by the founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Ataturk. It also saw it as an important entry point for joining the NATO alliance and this had a strategic importance within the policy of containing the Soviet Union, as well as perceiving Israel as a counterweight opposite Iraq and Syria, which can be depended upon when needed.

Turkish-Israeli relations peaked in 1997, when a strategic cooperation agreement was signed in the military and security fields, to be followed by the Turkish–Israeli partnership and the inauguration of South Eastern Anatolia project known as GAP. This growing relationship was, according to Turkish political analysts, a result of a temporary exception and a mutual desire on both sides to achieve their individual benefits. Tel Aviv desired to get the permanent and unconditional support of Turkey for its positions and policies in the region, while Ankara was trying hard and was doing all it could to transform into a western state and become a member of the European Union. This demanded that it sever its links with its region and enhance its relations with Israel that was looked upon as the key to the Western gate. The ruling Turkish elite persisted in those positions until it found out lately that it was the victim of a big lie and started looking for attractive new hopes eastward.

Despite all the military and political favors that Turkey extended to the West, the latter treated Turkey harshly and stood with its enemies, as happened in the case of Cyprus. The Eastern group continued to stall Turkey’s request for membership to the European Union for years, although it satisfied the requirements and conditions of the EU membership. Such treatment of Turkey and the persistent refusal of the EU to allow Ankara become its member helped in generating a popular movement that sought to reestablish its ties with the region. The Turkish ruling elite, represented by the Justice and Development Party, has taken up this tack to reorient its policies and focus on its immediate geographical neighborhood, particularly the Arab region in particular, and so they have been called the “neo-Ottomans”. This is being done in order to achieve long-term economic, political and strategic interests in addition to enhancing their bargaining chip with the West.

Turkey has invested in two important policies in this regard. The first one is international and represented by the weakness of the United States due to its debilitating financial crisis. This has led to the decline of its influence in many areas of the world and has forced Washington to follow the policy of “regionalization of conflicts,” which would mean it would give increasing role to regional parties to solve conflicts and find regional settlements for them. The second factor is regional and represented by the growing weakness of the ‘Arab system’ and the emergence of a ‘power vacuum’, or what has been described by one author as “an Arab no-man’s-land in political terms,” which has attracted all sides and this has increased the regional ambitions of Turkey. It has encouraged it to make new alliances in the region by getting close to Iran (probably in coordination with Washington to contain the Iranian position and Syria). In this context, Ankara has made new overtures by taking steps and positions which maintain a measured distance from Israel and paves the way for the new direction of Turkey at Arab and Iranian levels.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Daoud Oglo, who is also the architect of the new Turkish foreign policy, defined the three principles of the self-styled ‘neo-Ottomans’. The first is the principle of balance between freedom and security, the second is an anticipatory peace policy and the third is active participation in the area of Turkish influence. Based on the last premise, Turkey has found the Arab region to be the best candidate for an area of influence, in which to initiate its new policy. For this, it is trying to wipe its black history with respect to its strategic alliance with Israel from the minds and memory of Arab people. It had the perfect opportunity to effect this planned transformation after the massive Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip (January 2009), in which Israel freely used internationally-banned weapons of mass destruction. Turkey took a firm position against this aggression, and its opposition peaked in an open confrontation between Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Perez during the World Economic Forum at Davos (on January 30, 2009), when Turkish Prime Minister withdrew from the forum accusing Israel of killing children in Gaza. This increased the popularity of the Erdogan government among Arab and Islamic circles. Erdogan also declared the support of his country to the Goldstone report until the end. This infuriated Israel and made it worry of the possibility of geopolitical changes occurring that could threaten the basis for its close security ties with Turkey.

In this context, Turkey made a noticeable push in the direction of developing its relation with Syria, and Damascus gained an unexpected amount of political flexibility in the face of regional and international pressures. It enhanced its relations with Turkey to the level of strategic cooperation, a development that was not agreeable to Tel Aviv.

This was followed by another development that has its effect on Turkish-Israeli relations, with Ankara backing out one of its most important annual military exercises with Israel, which is periodically carried out by Turkey with NATO members under the name of the ‘Anatolian Eagle’. This raised quite a commotion in Tel Aviv and there were many conjectures over the intent behind this step. The importance of these military exercises is that it provides Israeli forces a larger air space to train its pilots, as the Israel has limited air space. It also allows Israeli pilots to learn the various aerial routes and entry points into the region, a knowledge Israel has previously exploited when Israeli airplanes attacked a Syrian location in September 2007 in Deir Al-Zour under the allegation that it is a nuclear reactor under construction. The Der Spiegel magazine revealed at that time that those airplanes infiltrated the Turkish Syrian North Eastern borders and entered through them into the Syrian airspace and destroyed the targeted location.

At another level, Erdogan went even further in confronting Israeli allegations over the Iranian nuclear file in his statement to the British Guardian magazine saying “Western fears of Tehran’s desire to possess a nuclear bomb is based on hearsay”.

The question raised here is what would be the result of the Turkish positions on Israel? Will it amount to a strategic shift or would it just be a temporary tactical position? In reality, Erdogan has succeeded in reclaiming a vital role for Turkish diplomacy at the Arab and regional levels with these initial positions. It is noticed that despite internal (especially on the side of Turkish military forces) and external pressures (related to the necessity of preserving the vital interests of the US and Israel), the positions of the Turkish government have confirmed in the past its ability to keep the independence of its decisions.  This was apparent from its refusal to allow the passage of the US forces through its territories during the Iraq war in 2003. It can be said that the current Turkish movements are still in its exploratory phases to identify the level of Arab responsiveness and assess the cost and returns. In order for the principled Turkish position over Israel to be successful there must be a corresponding Arab dimension to push this Turkish change into an Arab–Turkish strategic regional alliance. This alliance would restructure the regional formulas and balance of power in the region at a level that would penetrate and break the strategic Turkish–Israeli alliance. There is always the fear that Arabs would not avail this new opportunity, as unfortunately the Arab region still remains a region of lost opportunities. If the adverse Arab position persists, it is likely that a gradual Turkish retreat will happen with respect to the current position on Israel.