In the 1990s, the world witnessed the forging of a unique entente between Turkey, a predominantly Muslim secular democracy, and the Jewish state of Israel. A range of shared interests brought the two states into alignment, reinforced by joint military exercises, intelligence sharing, and high-level diplomatic visits. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, one of the Turkish architects of the relationship, former deputy chief of staff Çevik Bir, listed the advantages to Turkey and Israel in fields ranging from deterrence to diplomacy. He urged the United States to invest still more in the relationship, which could "develop as the pillar of a wider security architecture for the Middle East, with the objective of keeping theocratic extremism and martial despotism in check."
But in the spring of 2003, when the United States moved to eliminate Saddam Hussein, Israel and Turkey stood on opposite sides of the debate over the war. Turkish public opinion ran strongly against the war, and Ankara's new Islamist-oriented government denied U.S. forces access to Turkish territory. In contrast, Israeli public opinion strongly supported the removal of Saddam by force, and the Israeli government coordinated its wartime moves closely with Washington.
In the immediate aftermath of Saddam's fall, Ankara and Jerusalem sought to reaffirm their commitment to their relationship despite this sharp divergence. Israeli president Moshe Katsav, during a July 2003 visit to Ankara, was feted in a burst of publicity. The Turkish foreign ministry was also quick to invite and receive Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom. But this could not obscure the question marks left by the fact that Turkey and Israel had been poles apart over a key strategic issue in the Middle East.
Mutual interests have driven the entente between Turkey and Israel. Nevertheless, the interests of the two countries are not identical, and in a number of areas they diverge. There has been a tendency on both sides to ignore these divergences, perhaps out of a sense of enthusiasm for the entente's potential. But as the United States discovered in the spring, a failure to appreciate differing interests can lead to unanticipated disagreements down the road. All of Turkey's bilateral relationships deserve more critical scrutiny than before, perhaps none more so than Turkey's relations with Israel.
In this article, the indisputable strengths of the Turkish-Israeli relationship are taken for granted. Turkey and Israel are democracies; they have a shared interest in regional stability; and they are oriented toward the West. They are the most economically productive and militarily powerful states in the Middle East. The political, economic, and strategic compatibilities between the two states make them natural partners in an unpredictable region. The strengths of the entente have been analyzed in numerous official statements, press articles, and academic studies.
This essay is an attempt to enumerate some of its weaknesses. The U.S.-Turkish relationship struck a mine in the spring; likewise, there are a number of potential mines on the path ahead of Turkey and Israel. These include, in descending order of importance, political Islam in Turkey; Turkish public sympathy for the Palestinians; Turkey's relations with many of its regional neighbors; possible disagreements over Kurdish aspirations; and the desire of influential segments of the Israeli public to recognize the Armenian genocide as a fact. What follows is an effort at mapping these mines without attempting to predict whether the Israeli-Turkish entente will ever strike any one of them.
Soon after Turkey and Israel concluded their first major military agreement in 1996, allowing for the transfer and sale of arms and military technology between the two countries, a Turkish pharmacist named İbrahim Gumrukcuoğlu attempted to murder Turkish president Süleyman Demirel with a handgun in the province of Izmit. Gumrukcuoğlu, who professed sympathy for Palestinian Muslims, claimed he acted out of religious conviction and the belief that Turkey should not have "an agreement with the terrorist Jews."
Although Gumrukcuoğlu acted alone, many Islamic leaders and organizations in Turkey share his contempt for Israel. Islamist political parties, which have long been at odds with the secular Kemalist establishment, emphasize Turkey's Islamic ties and denounce relations with Israel and the West. Although Islamist parties and politicians have frequently been banned by the Turkish military, their basic ideology has continued to resonate in Turkish politics. Islamist propaganda has continuously shown anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic tendencies, and some Islamist leaders have gone so far as to blame the poor condition of Turkey's economy on "international Zionism."
In what has been seen as a fluke of coalition politics, in 1995 Necmettin Erbakan's Islamist Refah Party (Welfare Party) came into power with only 21 percent of the vote. Erbakan was elected prime minister, and he took office the following year. Turkey's first Islamist prime minister, who had twice previously been banned from politics by the military, openly called for the creation of an Islamic version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an Islamic United Nations, an Islamic common market, and a group of eight developing Islamic nations (D-8) to counter the industrialized Group of Seven (G-7). As prime minister, Erbakan turned down invitations to Europe and opted instead to visit Muslim countries throughout Asia and Africa, including decidedly anti-Western nations like Iran and Libya.
Accordingly, Erbakan chose to ignore a letter of congratulations on his election sent by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He harshly denounced ties to Jerusalem, accusing Israel of fostering plans to conquer all of the territory between the Nile and the Euphrates. On one occasion he charged that "Zionists are seeking to assimilate Turkey and pull us from our historical Islamic roots through integrating it into the European Community." Even many Palestinian leaders were wary of the new government that gave legitimacy to radical groups like Hamas and Hizbullah by inviting them to send representatives to Refah's party convention.
Yet paradoxically, ties between Israel and Turkey were actually strengthened during Erbakan's tenure. Erbakan, faced with pressure from the Turkish military, authorized a major deal for the Israeli upgrading of Turkey's fleet of F-4 Phantom fighter jets. In addition, an agreement to increase bilateral trade went through parliament unopposed by Refah. And while Erbakan did criticize Israel during a meeting with Israeli foreign minister David Levy, he did at least meet with Levy—an act Erbakan would have condemned before taking office. The military made sure that Erbakan understood that Turkey's relationship with Israel was off-limits.
Not all Refah party leaders understood this, however. The most notable example occurred in Sincan in 1997, when the city's Islamist mayor and the Iranian ambassador actively participated in an anti-Israel rally—complete with portraits of the late Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shiqaqi—condemning Israel's occupation of Jerusalem. The military sent tanks into the town and arrested several participants including Mayor Bekir Yıldız. This incident set off a series of events that eventually led to Erbakan's forced resignation.
In late 2002, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AK) gained control of parliament. Although the party's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, promised to maintain Turkey's pro-Western tilt, many of the AK's senior political leaders had been associated with Refah, including foreign minister Abdullah Gül, justice minister Cemil Çiçek, interior minister Abdulkadir Aksu, and parliament speaker Bülent Arinç. Furthermore, Erdoğan himself had previously served in the Islamist Refah Party as mayor of Istanbul. While serving as mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan had been banned from politics after reciting a poem that allegedly incited religious hatred. Because of this, Gül temporarily served as prime minister after the AK's victory until Erdoğan was able to take over the reins in March 2003.
Although the AK has not been as vocal as Refah in its condemnation of Israel, many of its leaders have not hidden their criticism of Israel's policies. Shortly before the AK came to power, Arinç encouraged the United States to use its influence to stop Israel's "massacre" of the Palestinians. In addition, Arinç argued that Turkey should cancel a major tank contract with Israel in response to violence in the West Bank and Gaza. Gül, who had served as one of Erbakan's top foreign affairs advisors, had previously pledged to end all agreements with Israel, and soon after the AK's 2002 victory, Erdoğan asserted that the Turkish populace viewed Israel's treatment of the Palestinians as "the terrorism of Sharon."
So far, however, Erdoğan's government has not moved to undermine Turkish-Israeli relations. Erdoğan has made it clear that he does not wish to harm the economic relationship enjoyed by the two countries, and Gül congratulated Sharon after his reelection victory in early 2003. Plans have even been discussed for both Gül and Erdoğan to visit Israel.
The real danger from the AK is that Erdoğan's pro-Western leanings are not necessarily shared by many of the party's leaders. This was demonstrated in early 2003 when the AK-dominated Turkish parliament refused to allow U.S. soldiers to use Turkish bases in attacking Iraq, and Erdoğan refused to criticize his colleagues' decision. If the anti-Israel policies that have frequently been advocated by Islamist politicians ever did truly have an impact on Turkish foreign policy, relations with Israel would most assuredly be affected. The worst-case scenario would resemble the same way Iranian-Israeli relations, formerly close, became totally antagonistic after the 1979 revolution.
The prospects for this are slim. As Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies has noted, "The chances for an Islamic takeover in Turkey, reminiscent of Iran's revolution, which would end the close cooperation with Israel … are remote." In the past, the Turkish military has served as a powerful check on Islamist power. Despite the election of the AK, the military has continued to develop its relations with Israel, and in January 2003, an anti-Israeli officer was dismissed for refusing to participate in joint exercises with Israel. Additionally, the sixth annual Reliant Mermaid naval maneuvers of U.S., Turkish, and Israeli forces took place in international waters off the Turkish coast in August 2003.
Nevertheless, the old givens of civil-military relations in Turkey are yielding under the combined pressures of the European Union and the Islamists. In late July 2003, the Turkish parliament passed a set of reforms limiting the power of the National Security Council, the principal lever of the military in politics. "What's going on here now is really revolutionary," said noted journalist Mehmet Ali Birand. "Turkey is in the middle of an incredible 'civilianization' process, with the influence of the military waning." Bottom line: empowered political Islam remains an endemic threat to Turkish-Israeli relations, a threat that could surface as a result of shifts in Turkish domestic politics.
When examining Turkish support for Palestinian nationalism as a factor in Turkish-Israeli relations, a distinction must be drawn between the Palestinian cause and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Since the 1970s, both the Turkish people and government have, to some degree, sympathized with the Palestinian cause. Relations with the PLO, however, have been marked by mistrust and suspicion.
Public opinion polls show that a large majority of the Turkish populace feels a strong sense of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Although many negative stereotypes about Arabs permeate Turkish society for their "treason" against the Ottoman state, Turks have seen the Palestinians as a group that was faithful to the Ottoman government during the Arab revolt of 1916-28.
The PLO is another matter. Headed by Yasir Arafat, the PLO forged ties with some of Turkey's traditional adversaries. Ankara suspected the PLO of training Kurdish, Armenian, and left-wing terrorists in the 1970s and early 1980s—a charge that was confirmed by Israel when it invaded Lebanon in 1982. The PLO also had close relations with Greece, which for many years allowed the Palestinians to operate with great leeway on Greek territory. As a result, the PLO supported the Greek position in the Cyprus dispute.
Ankara showed its displeasure by refusing to recognize the PLO as the political representative of the Palestinian people until 1976 when Turkey became a full member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The PLO was not allowed to open an office in Ankara until three years later in 1979. In 1988, Turkey recognized a Palestinian state after the Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers declared "independence." But even with such recognition, Turkish-PLO relations remained less than cordial, and the organization's diplomatic representation in Ankara remained at the level of chargé d'affaires until late 1991 when relations with both the PLO and Israel were simultaneously upgraded to ambassadorial level. The Palestinian Authority, heir to the PLO, also received very limited support from Turkey. In 1996, Arafat requested sixty Turkish monitors for Palestinian elections. Turkey sent only four.
Yet despite this reticence about the PLO, Turkey has continued to extend economic, political, and ideological support to the Palestinian cause. After the eruption of the first intifada, the Turkish Grand National Assembly officially condemned "the violent actions of the Israelis against the Palestinians living in the occupied territories and the inhuman violation of Palestinians' human rights." Similarly, Turkish foreign minister Mümtaz Soysal announced in 1994 that what Israel calls terrorism is actually nothing more than Palestinians "trying to defend their rights." In 1994, Prime Minister Tansu Çiller caused a stir when, without Israel's authorization, she visited the Palestinian headquarters in eastern Jerusalem known as the Orient House and met with a Palestinian delegation. Israeli political leaders including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were upset by this visit.
Turkish sympathy became particularly evident after the beginning of the second intifada in late 2000. Demonstrators throughout Turkey denounced Israel's incursion into Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza, and Turkish intellectuals and celebrities launched a campaign urging people to turn out their lights for one minute every evening at 9 P.M. in a show of solidarity with the Palestinian people. In October 2000, Turkey voted in favor of a U.N. resolution condemning Israel for using excessive force against the Palestinians, and later that month, President Ahmet Sezer harshly denounced Israel at an Islamic economic conference in Istanbul.
When Ariel Sharon visited Ankara in 2001, he was greeted by crowds chanting "butcher of Palestine, go home!" When four Turkish journalists covering the conflict were apprehended in Ramallah and temporarily detained by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in March 2002, the Turkish press was outraged; Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit went so far as to attack Israel's actions as being "unacceptable with respect to freedom of the press," and suggested that a lack of progress in the peace process might negatively affect Ankara's policies vis-à-vis Jerusalem. In April 2002, Turkish foreign minister İsmail Cem and his Greek counterpart visited Arafat in his besieged headquarters in Ramallah, and Cem openly chided Jerusalem for blatantly disrespecting human rights.
Another diplomatic frenzy was created in April 2002 when Ecevit accused Israel of carrying out genocide against the Palestinian people in an address to his political party. Outraged Israeli leaders demanded an immediate explanation, and several prominent Jewish lobby groups in Washington angrily voiced their discontent. Some observers predicted that this stir would even trigger a change in Israel's policy regarding the question of Armenian genocide. Ecevit managed to quell the storm by apologizing profusely and repeatedly to Israel and to Jewish Americans.
It is important to note that, by and large, Turkish support for Palestinian nationalism has not usually been extended to extremist groups. To the contrary, Turkey has, at times, actively thwarted such organizations. As an example, Israeli radio reported in 2000 that Turkey had agreed to prevent Iran from supplying arms to Hizbullah through Turkish airspace. Still, some factions within Turkey have associated themselves with such groups, and in June 2003, a Turkish civilian threw two grenades into the U.S. consulate in Adana in retaliation for Israel's attempted assassination of a Hamas leader, 'Abd al-'Aziz Rantisi.
Israel has set high goals in its relationship with Turkey, hoping that the largely Muslim state would argue on its behalf at regional and international forums. Indeed, at the 2000 OIC summit in Qatar, Turkey worked to tone down a resolution condemning Israel. Additionally, Turkey was the only predominantly Muslim nation to vote in favor of removing language critical of Israel from a declaration put forth at the U.N.'s World Conference against Racism in Durban. Such support, however, has not been absolute, and generally speaking, Turkey remains a critic of Israel's policies towards the Palestinians.
With the recent appointment of Abu Mazen (Mahmud Abbas) as Palestinian prime minister and the endorsement of the Quartet's roadmap by Israel, progress in defusing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a possibility. Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike have expressed an interest in employing Turkey as a venue in which to host peace negotiations—a possibility that has also recently interested Turkish leaders, including foreign minister Abdullah Gül. If there were to be a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations, any remaining Turkish reticence in dealing with Israel would dissipate, as it did after the Oslo accords were announced in 1994. If, however, the current roadmap leads nowhere and violence breaks out again, Turkish public sympathy for the Palestinians could surge once more.
Over twenty years ago, regional states enjoyed enormous economic leverage over Turkey, and they used it to block the evolution of Turkish-Israeli relations. For instance, in 1980, Arab lobbying in Ankara successfully persuaded Turkey to close its Jerusalem consulate and downgrade its diplomatic relations with Israel to the level of second secretary in response to the Israeli parliament's declaration of Jerusalem as its undivided capital. In 1991, Ankara refused to invite Israel to a proposed regional water conference because of objections from neighboring Arab states, particularly Syria.
Turkey's susceptibility to such pressure in its policies towards Israel began to diminish in the 1990s as Arab political influence and economic power waned. Turkish-Israeli relations have flourished in the absence of any concerted Arab effort to punish Turkey over the entente. Nevertheless, Turkey, unlike Israel, has diplomatic ties with most states in the Middle East and has developed especially close relations with Egypt. In addition, Turkey still receives many vital resources from its neighbors. In 1996, Ankara and Tehran concluded a $23 billion deal to build a natural gas pipeline between the two countries. The vast majority of Turkey's crude oil is imported from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Algeria, and Egypt.
With few exceptions, these regional states have continually condemned the Turkish-Israeli alignment. Leaders from Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, who were deeply troubled by the first major military agreement between Israel and Turkey, met in Damascus in June 1996 and called on Turkey to rethink its policies towards Israel. Later that month, representatives from twenty-two Arab nations convened in Cairo for the first Arab summit since 1990. This summit was motivated, in part, by regional fears of Turkish-Israeli military coordination.
Ties between the two states were denounced in a resolution put forth by Syria at the 1997 meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Tehran, and in 1998, the Arab League proclaimed that Turkish-Israeli coordination was an attempt "to re-draw the political map of the Middle East."
Criticisms have been particularly harsh from nations that feel most threatened by the alignment: Syria, Iran, and, before its defeat in 2003, Iraq. However, other nearby states including Lebanon, Libya, Greece, Armenia, and Greek Cyprus have also occasionally voiced their concern. In efforts to quell regional fears, Turkey has repeatedly insisted that its relationship with Israel is not directed against a third party. Such assurances, however, have been largely discounted.
Yet this is probably the least important constraint on Turkish policy. Turkey's relations with many of these governments have been marked by mutual suspicion and animosity. Instead of acquiescing to regional demands, Turkey has intermittently called upon Israel for support in its regional disputes. Most famously, Turkey made the most of its military ties to Israel during the October 1998 crisis with Syria, and in 2001, Turkey, with Israeli support, stood up against Iran when Tehran threatened Azerbaijani oil in the Caspian Sea.
Another way in which regional governments have tried to exert pressure against the partnership is by attempting to form a counter-alliance. Some have predicted that Turkish-Israeli coordination could push the region into a dangerous game of axes and alliances, as did the Baghdad Pact of the 1950s—a scenario in which neither Turkey nor Israel would benefit. In early 1998, Egyptian foreign minister 'Amr Musa told parliament, "Turkey must know that any alliance [with Israel] will trigger the establishment of a counter-alliance." Damascus, feeling particularly vulnerable to Turkish-Israeli military coordination, improved relations with Baghdad and Tehran in the late 1990s with the hope of forming such a counter-alliance, and in 1996, Iran offered to form a military pact with Syria.
There had also been talk of a Greek-Armenian-Syrian axis encircling Turkey. In 1995, it was even reported that Syria had agreed to allow Greek forces to use Syrian air bases to launch attacks against Turkey in any future conflict. Such a game of alliances could theoretically escalate into a nightmare scenario as seemingly unrelated conflicts like the Cyprus dispute, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Azeri-Armenian dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh became dangerously entangled. Indeed, fear of an Azeri-Turkish-Israeli axis was one factor that prompted Yerevan to improve relations with Jerusalem. In early 2000, Armenian president Robert Kocharyan commented that "Azerbaijan's joining this military cooperation [between Turkey and Israel] could have certain consequences. … the development of relations with Israel pursues also the goal of removing these fears."
But none of these counter-alliances ever came into existence. Iran and Syria did not sign a military pact, and the possibility of a Greek-Armenian-Syrian alliance dissolved as both Greece and Armenia improved relations with Turkey and Israel. If ever there were a time to create a counter-alliance, it would have been during the so-called "undeclared war" in October 1998 between Turkey and Syria. Many states of the region accused Turkey of using its alignment with Israel as a way of encircling Syria and pressuring it into submission—a claim Israel fervently denied. But no counter-alliance emerged. Instead, Egyptian president Husni Mubarak traversed back and forth between Damascus and Ankara and eased the tension diplomatically. The crisis ended with Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad caving in to Turkish demands.
Not only did this crisis demonstrate Egypt's unwillingness to create a counter-alliance, it also revealed Syria's true weakness. The Syrians themselves had no illusions and knew that attempts to form a counter-alliance would fail. Syrian information minister Muhammad Salman recognized as much in 1997 when he commented, "You should not respond to a misguided alliance by another misguided alliance." With the defeat of Iraq by U.S.-led coalition forces in 2003, the creation of such a counter-axis appears even further out of reach.
Of all the potential mines in Turkish-Israeli relations, regional pressure on Turkey is perhaps the most talked-about—and one of the least significant.
The Kurds, with large populations in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and parts of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Syria, are said to make up the world's largest ethnic group without political independence. Turkey views Kurdish cultural autonomy in Turkey and the possible establishment of a self-governing Kurdistan in northern Iraq as significant threats to its territorial sovereignty.
The Kurdish insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s, led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, or PKK), posed a major threat to Turkish security. An estimated 30,000 people were killed, and many more were displaced. Alleged support for the PKK by neighboring states brought Turkey and Syria to the brink of war in October 1998 and strained Turkish-Iranian relations. In addition, the ability of PKK guerrillas to operate from within Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq led to Turkish incursions into northern Iraq and staunch Turkish support for the principle of Iraq's territorial sovereignty. Ankara naturally views all sympathizers towards the Kurdish cause—not just in Turkey, but also in Iraq—with a measure of trepidation. Ankara almost certainly would rethink its policies towards Jerusalem were the Israeli government to support Kurdish aspirations.
It should be recalled that Israel followed a pro-Kurdish policy in the past. Historically, Israel sought to build strong ties with non-Arabs within and on the periphery of the Arab world including the Lebanese Maronites, the shah's Iran, and Ethiopia. In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel used Iranian channels to provide training, weaponry, funds, medical supplies, and intelligence support for the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein. The leader of this uprising, Mustafa Barzani, reciprocated Israeli support in 1970 by helping hundreds of Iraqi Jews escape persecution. At one point, Barzani even traveled to Israel where he met with Israel's president, Zalman Shazar, and presented Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan with a Kurdish dagger.
The Kurdish-Israeli partnership came to a screeching halt, however, after an agreement between Baghdad and Tehran ended Iranian support for the rebellion in 1975. Kurdish groups, feeling betrayed, thereafter kept their distance from Israel. Turkey continuously urged Israel to go still further and denounce Kurdish terrorism within Turkey. Turkish foreign minister Hikmet Çetin, during his 1993 visit to Israel, pushed Jerusalem on precisely this issue. But Israel, not wanting to add itself to the hit list of yet another terrorist organization, showed great reluctance and refused to comply with Turkish requests.
Finally, in May 1997, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu publicly announced his country's support for Turkey in its conflict with the PKK, thereby ending Israel's silent neutrality. The PKK quickly reacted to this change of policy and immediately announced that it would begin targeting Israel. Later that year, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan went so far as to warn participants at the OIC summit in Tehran that through its relationship with Turkey, Israel hoped to accomplish "its [expansionistic] goal of reaching the Euphrates."
Enmity between the PKK and Israel intensified after Turkish authorities apprehended Öcalan in Nairobi in early 1999. Many Kurds, suspecting Israeli involvement, dismissed Jerusalem's insistence that it had played no part in Öcalan's arrest. Kurdish demonstrators protested against Israel throughout Europe, and in Berlin, three Kurds were shot and killed by security forces after a mob stormed the Israeli consulate.
There are Israelis who believe that their country has gone too far in accommodating Turkey on Kurdish issues, and that while it may have been proper to condemn the terrorist PKK, Israel should not tie its hands over the Kurds of northern Iraq. Additionally, popular support for Kurdish aspirations draws on the fact that an estimated 50,000 Israelis consider themselves to be Kurdish Jews. Turkey, however, still fears that PKK sympathizers in the oil-rich cities of Mosul and Kirkuk could help fund terrorism or that de facto Kurdish independence could trigger stronger separatist attitudes among Turkish Kurds. This is a clear divergence of interests, but even if Israel did not actively support Kurdish aspirations, Kurdish self-assertion in northern Iraq could push Turkey to improve its ties with Iran and Syria in an effort to contain or thwart the Kurds.
It is difficult to overestimate Turkish sensitivity over Kurdish issues. The future of Iraq is in a haze, and presently the United States keeps all outside forces at bay. But if Iraq becomes a regional "great game," Israel and Turkey could very well find themselves on opposite sides of it.
During World War I, it is claimed that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were systematically slaughtered or sent into exile by the Ottoman government in a campaign of deliberate genocide. Ankara, however, argues that only 300,000 Armenians were killed as part of an armed struggle in which both sides suffered casualties.
Turkey's unwavering stance on this issue has bled into its foreign policy, and Turkish pressure has successfully blocked formal acknowledgment of the alleged genocide by many governments. In an effort to appease Turkish demands, many U.S. presidents, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have shown sensitivity to Turkish desiderata and avoided accusatory language when referring to the Armenian plight. When Turkish pressure has been defied, Ankara has not hesitated to react. After the French parliament officially recognized the Armenian genocide in 2001, Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Paris and cancelled several major contracts with French companies.
Israel, not wanting to jeopardize its relations with Turkey, to this day remains unwilling to officially recognize the 1915 massacres as genocide. Additionally, some Jewish leaders fear that any acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide could downplay the significance of the Holocaust or even endanger the Jewish community in Turkey. Shimon Peres has personified the Israeli position on the issue. Before visiting Turkey in 2001, he was quoted in the Turkish Daily News as saying, "We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy, what the Armenians went through, but not a genocide."
This attitude has percolated through the state-run media and the educational system. The Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) has censored programs documenting the alleged genocide. Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, who as director-general of the IBA in the 1980s cancelled a screening of one such documentary, claimed that such a film could anger Ankara, thereby harming efforts to help Jews escape Syria through Turkey.
Turkish sensitivities over the issue reached absurd proportions in 1997 when the Israeli government nominated a Tel Aviv University professor and Ottoman specialist, Ehud Toledano, as its ambassador to Turkey. Ankara claimed, without foundation, that he had shown sympathy for the Armenian position some fifteen years earlier during a 1981 Israeli radio program. Turkey refused to accept Toledano's appointment, and Israel had to withdraw it.
During celebrations for Israel's fifty-fifth independence day in May 2003, an Israeli-Armenian woman whose family fled to Haifa in 1920 was scheduled to participate in a torch-lighting ceremony in which she planned to make remarks about the Armenian genocide. Under pressure from Ankara, the Israeli organizers persuaded the speaker to drop any explicit reference to events of 1915; in addition, references to the massacres were erased from some 2,000 brochures and a plaque that was to be unveiled at the ceremony.
At the same time, pressure to acknowledge the massacres as a form of genocide has mounted within Israel where some feel that by not doing so, the Israeli government is acting hypocritically. As a people that survived the Holocaust, many Jews feel a natural affinity toward other groups that have been victims of genocide and question the traditional attitude of the Israeli government.
Thus, in 1994, deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin, at that time a member of the Labor party, called the events of 1915 "definitely massacre, genocide, and we will assist in its commemoration because this is the sort of thing that the world is obliged to remember." Every year on April 24, Israeli-Armenians gather in Jerusalem to commemorate the atrocities; Israeli officials long refrained from any participation in these events. But in 1995, absorption minister Yair Tzaban of the Meretz party spoke at the eightieth anniversary commemoration and promised to introduce the study of the topic into school curriculum.
Five years later, a controversy emerged when Meretz leader and education minister Yossi Sarid made similar statements at the annual ceremony. Sarid's comments received public support from Beilin, then serving as justice minister, and Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial. An alarmed Ankara voiced its anger and instructed its cabinet ministers to boycott the annual Israel national day reception at the Israeli embassy the following month. Jerusalem insisted that its official policy had not changed, and in fact, contrary to the promises of Tzaban and Sarid, the Armenian genocide has still not been introduced into the school curriculum.
Israeli historian Yair Auron, an advocate of the Armenian issue, believes that "the chances that Israel will, in the near future, recognize the Armenian genocide are more remote than ever." Nevertheless, when in April 2002, Turkish prime minister Ecevit accused Israel of genocide against the Palestinians, he provoked many Israelis into questioning whether Israel had not humiliated itself by ignoring and even defending Turkey's record on the Armenians. This symbolic issue is at the bottom of the list of potential spoilers of Turkish-Israeli relations, but in combination with another issue, it could contribute to a downward spiral.
The Turkish-Israeli partnership has managed to overcome substantial hurdles since blossoming in the 1990s. Both Turkey and Israel have benefited greatly from their mutual ties, and the rationales for the entente, on both sides, are compelling. It would be a mistake to underestimate the interests that have supported the relationship to date and that are working now to expand it.
There are many in Israel, however, who sense an unbalanced level of responsibility in maintaining the relationship. This is the long-term consequence of the asymmetry of the relationship. As Çevik Bir has noted, "for a very long time, Israel was eager to develop [the entente], and Turkey was reticent. Israel played the suitor to a reluctant Turkey." As suitor, Jerusalem became accustomed to overlooking continued Turkish support for the Palestinians and deferring to Ankara on Kurdish aspirations and Armenian grievances. These issues are still considered to be minor irritants in a relationship that remains firm at official levels, but they could become major irritants if the relationship were called into question at the popular level.
Of all the variables, it is the growing resonance of political Islam in Turkey that could be the catalyst of this reverse dynamic. It is commonplace for observers, including some Turkish secularists, to claim that Turkish Islamism is different from Islamism everywhere else. It has yet to be determined whether this "Turkish exception" is myth or reality. But even if one accepts that the Turkish failure to provide access to U.S. forces to Iraq was an exception, it establishes that a growing Islamist role in government makes Turkey less likely to acquiesce to U.S. requests in formulating its foreign policy. The Islamist imperative could render that policy less an outcome of careful calculation and more responsive to popular and even populist sentiment.
It is here that the Turkish-Israeli relationship is most vulnerable. The entente has powerful supporters in the military and the traditional ruling elite. Its roots are shallower in the wider public, especially that part of it susceptible to Islamist promises of "virtue" through authenticity. In and of itself, Islamist influence may not suffice to arrest or reverse the progress of Turkish-Israeli relations. But Ankara is also under pressure to align its foreign policy with that of Europe and decouple it from the United States. Were these pressures from inside and outside to combine, they could raise the political cost of the Turkish-Israeli relationship within Turkey to prohibitive levels.
Whether that happens depends, to some extent, on Washington, which must decide upon the place of this relationship in its overall vision for the post-Saddam Middle East. The Turkish-Israeli entente arose from mutual interests, but it has also depended on quiet encouragement from the United States. The new realities created by the Iraq war have changed the geostrategic chessboard of the Middle East. If the U.S. government assigns a role to the Turkish-Israeli relationship, it will flourish. If not, the weaknesses enumerated here may well gain salience, and the future of the Turkish-Israeli entente will become one more Middle Eastern uncertainty.
Gregory A. Burris is a student at the University of Texas at Austin where he is studying Middle Eastern history and politics. He wishes to thank John Littmann and Keith Walters for their helpful comments.
 Çevik Bir and Martin Sherman, "Formula for Stability: Turkey Plus Israel," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, p. 31.
 The fullest treatment belongs to Efraim Inbar, The Israeli-Turkish Entente (London: King's College London Mediterranean Studies, 2002).
 The Independent (London), May 20, 1996.
 Reuters, Aug. 8, 1996.
 George E. Gruen, "Dynamic Progress in Turkish-Israeli Relations," Israel Affairs, Summer 1995, p. 50.
 Kemal Kirişci, "Post Cold-War Turkish Security and the Middle East," Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, July 1997, at http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/1997/issue2/jv1n2a6.html.
 Hürriyet, July 25, 1996; Alan Makovsky, "How to Deal with Erbakan," Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 1997, p. 5.
 Quoted in M. Hakan Yavuz, "Turkish-Israeli Relations through the Lens of the Turkish Identity Debate," Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1997, p. 35.
 Kirişci, "Post Cold-War Turkish Security," at http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/1997/issue2/jv1n2a6.html.
 Anadolu News Agency (Turkey), Apr. 9, 2002.
 The Associated Press, Nov. 6, 2002.
 Agence France-Presse, June 9, 2003.
 Inbar, The Israeli-Turkish Entente, p. 18.
 The Jerusalem Post, Jan. 14, 2003.
 The Boston Globe, Aug. 3, 2003.
 Mustafa Kibaroğlu, "Turkey and Israel Strategize," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2002, p. 65.
 Bülent Aras, Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process and Turkey (Commack, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers, 1998), p. 125.
 Mahmut Bali Aykan, "The Palestinian Question in Turkish Foreign Policy from the 1950s to the 1990s," International Journal of Middle East Studies, Feb. 1993, p. 100.
 Quoted in Gruen, "Dynamic Progress," p. 50.
 Cumhuriyet, Nov. 5, 1994; quoted in Amikam Nachmani, "The Remarkable Turkish-Israeli Tie," Middle East Quarterly, June 1998, p. 22.
 Cengiz Candar, "Turkey: An Unexpected Response," in "The Street Reacts to Operation Defensive Shield: Snapshots from the Middle East," Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 2002, p. 63.
 Middle East News Agency (Cairo), Oct. 26, 2000.
 The Jerusalem Post, Aug. 9, 2001.
 Agence France-Presse, Mar. 30, 2002.
 The Washington Times, Aug. 9, 2001.
 Dow Jones International News, Apr. 25, 2002.
 BBC Monitoring, May 31, 2000.
 Voice of America Press Releases and Documents, Jun. 11, 2003.
 Anadolu News Agency, Jun. 22, 2003.
 Aykan, "The Palestinian Question in Turkish Foreign Policy," p. 101.
 It should be noted that one Arab nation, Jordan, has actually become a proponent of Turkish-Israeli coordination. Not only has Jordan intermittently defended the Turkish-Israeli entente at Arab summits, but at times Jordan has worked to increase economic cooperation with both nations and has even occasionally sent observers to attend Turkey and Israel's joint naval exercises with the United States.
 Reuters, June 9, 1996.
 Agence France-Presse, Sept. 7, 1998.
 Turan News Agency (Azerbaijan), Aug. 20, 2001.
 Agence France-Presse, Jan. 5, 1998.
 Kirişci, "Post Cold-War Turkish Security," at http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/1997/issue2/jv1n2a6.html.
 Meliha Altunışık, "The Turkish-Israeli Rapprochement in the Post-Cold War Era," Middle Eastern Studies, Apr. 2000, p. 180.
 BBC Monitoring Central Asia, Feb. 6, 2002.
 Quoted in Ofra Bengio and Gencer Özcan, "Old Grievances, New Fears: Arab Perceptions of Turkey and its Alignment with Israel," Middle Eastern Studies, Apr. 2001, p. 80.
 The Mideast Mirror (London), Nov. 16, 1993.
 Nachmani, "The Remarkable Turkish-Israeli Tie," p. 20.
 BBC Worldwide Monitoring, Dec. 23, 1997.
 It has even been reported that in the 1990s, Ariel Sharon became a leading advocate of enhancing Kurdish relations. See Gokhan Bacik, "The Limits of an Alliance: Turkish-Israeli Relations Revisited," Arab Studies Quarterly, Summer 2001, p. 55.
 The Spectator, Mar. 27, 1999.
 Turkish Daily News (Ankara), Apr. 10, 2001; quoted in Yair Auron, "My Intended Lecture at 'Pro Armenia' Conference," at http://www.proarmenia.am/eng-2003/en-Yair_Auron.htm.
 The Jerusalem Post, May 12, 2000.
 The Independent, Oct. 18, 1997. Rather than sympathizing with the Armenians, it appears that Toledano had argued the Turkish case against the genocide.
 The Toronto Star, May 7, 2003.
 Agence France-Presse, May 6, 2003.
 Quoted in Yair Auron, The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2000), p. 365.
 The Jerusalem Post, Apr. 25, 1995.
 Yair Auron, "My Intended Lecture at 'Pro Armenia' Conference," at http://www.proarmenia.am/eng-2003/en-Yair_Auron.htm.
 Bir and Sherman, "Formula for Stability: Turkey Plus Israel," p. 23.