In 1996, Israel and Turkey signed an agreement for military cooperation. Since then, much has been said and written about this evolving relationship, and political analysts have differed over how to define it. Depending on their assumptions, observers

In 1996, Israel and Turkey signed an agreement for military cooperation. Since then, much has been said and written about this evolving relationship, and political analysts have differed over how to define it. Depending on their assumptions, observers have called the Turkish-Israeli relationship an "axis," an "entente," even an "alliance." But what exactly is the real nature of this bilateral relationship? What is included; What is excluded? Does this relationship bind Turkey and Israel to a set of formal or informal commitments in the present? And does the military cooperation agreement imply any commitment regarding future contingencies?

Many political and military analysts did not wait for answers to these questions, and they immediately dubbed the relationship an "alliance." It was not long before representatives of other states in the Middle East began to criticize and even condemn both Turkey and Israel for forming an alliance—against them. Turkey was particularly sensitive to this claim, and Turkish politicians and diplomats rushed to point out that Turkey had concluded similar military cooperation agreements with more than two dozen states all over the world. Military cooperation with Israel, they were quick to assert, was not directed against any other state.

If an alliance requires formally documented and explicit commitments between two or more states, obliging them to assist one another in the event of an armed conflict, then the Turkish-Israeli relationship cannot be categorized as an alliance. No formal document has been signed, and no explicit commitment has been given, that could be construed as obligating the two parties in this way. But a careful interpretation of the provisions of the document they did sign in 1996 suggests that it opens the door to a much enhanced cooperation between the two countries—a cooperation that could reach levels usually only reached by allies.

Countless Israeli analysts have underlined the desirability of this evolution. Turkish analysts have been more reticent. They need not be. As the Middle East lurches into the twenty-first century, spinning out new threats in all directions, there is no room for doubt: a de facto military alliance with Israel is in the Turkish national interest.

An Ambivalent Past

To understand why, it is necessary to go back and assess the dramatic changes in Turkey's geo-strategic environment since the end of the Cold War. During the long years of bipolar Soviet-American rivalry, Turkey followed a policy of "non-involvement" toward the Middle East, Israel included. Turkey, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), relied exclusively on the alliance and its nuclear umbrella.

Turkey's environment began to change in the late 1970s, as countries to its south and east began to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missiles. Yet Turkey did not shift its posture: the Soviet Union still topped the list of Turkey's threat perceptions, and NATO provided a comfortable and reassuring framework for military planners.

This exclusive reliance on NATO's deterrent involved some risk for Turkey, had Turkey faced threats emanating from the Middle East. NATO was never united over the inclusion of "out of area" intervention in its contingency plans. The United States favored such planning, but Western European members generally opposed it, since they conceived of NATO exclusively as a counter-weight to the Warsaw Pact. Although the Washington Treaty of 1949, the charter of NATO, mentioned no country as the "enemy," the Euro-Atlantic alliance was quite deliberately formed to provide collective defense against the Soviet menace. Countries in the Middle East posed no threat to the Western European members of the alliance; the entire region was deemed "out of area," beyond the scope of contingency planning, with the exception of some limited planning to defend the oil-rich Gulf region from Soviet encroachment.

Turkey, then, could never be certain what would happen were it ever attacked by any of its Middle Eastern neighbors. Would NATO invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty of 1949? In that article, the allies agreed "that an attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all." This geographic limit always left a question as to whether the European allies of NATO were totally committed to Turkey's territorial integrity, especially on its Asian frontiers.

Yet while the Turkish security elite worried about the possibility of being left high and dry by its European allies, Turkey actually opposed the inclusion of "out of area" intervention in NATO plans. Turkey did not fear aggression from the Middle East as much as it feared being dragged into the Middle East's own internal conflicts, especially between Israel and the Arab states. The Turkish concern derived from the depth of the American commitment to Israel— a commitment demonstrated in the midst of the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, when the United States went to the brink of war with the Soviet Union in defense of Israel. For a host of reasons, it had been a cardinal principle of Turkish foreign policy to avoid taking sides in the Arab-Israeli dispute. The Turkish military did not want to be placed in a situation where it might be expected to assist in U.S. operations specifically designed to back up Israel in its conflict with neighboring Arab states—a conflict which, until the late 1970s, showed no signs of abating.

Turkey was only slightly less ambivalent about Western efforts to institutionalize cooperation among the states of the "northern tier": Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The so-called Baghdad Pact of 1955, the Central Treaty Organization of 1959, and the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD), established in 1964, were all intended to counter Soviet penetration. All of them were flawed, weak, and ineffectual—and all of them were further reminders to the Turks of the primacy of their ties to Europe.

Turkey was not oblivious to potential threats emanating from the Middle East. But Turkey considered itself strong enough to deter potential Middle Eastern adversaries on its own, and it wanted to decide for itself how and when to defend its interests in the region, without having to answer either to Europe or the United States.

The Threats Multiply

What has changed? The 1990s brought about far-reaching shifts in Turkey's geo-strategic position. Since the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO's role has lost some of its clarity. NATO found several new missions in the Balkans, but the eastward expansion of the European Union (EU), and the German- and French-led efforts to establish a "European army" have raised questions about NATO's future role. Turkey, positioned at the far edge of the NATO alliance and outside the EU, now asks itself whether it still comes completely under any collective umbrella.

At the same time, the potential threats from the Middle East have grown exponentially. Countries on Turkey's Middle Eastern borders have stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and growing arsenals of ballistic missiles. Beyond the potential threats emanating from the neighboring states, the terrorist groups based in the region are menacing and may have chemical and biological agents at their disposal. Their possible deployment of crude weapons of mass destruction looms over Turkey's citizens and military forces.

In short, Turkey can no longer afford to overlook possible new threats from the Middle East. Some Turks argue that Israel's nuclear capabilities are the driving force behind the efforts of Syria, Iraq, and Iran to develop non-conventional capabilities. That may be true. But no one can rule out the possibility that Syrian, Iraqi, or Iranian capabilities might be turned against Turkey rather than Israel. For while the rhetoric of these states is invariably directed against Israel, their weapons have been turned most often against one another. Iraq did not use chemical weapons against Israel, but did use them against its own citizens and against Iran. Both Iran and Iraq targeted each other's cities with Scud missiles during their eight-year war. Turkey, then, can take no comfort in its neighbors' protests that they arm only to deter Israel. Territorial claims, water disputes, terrorism—these are issues that continue to bedevil Turkey's relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors, and that could escalate into armed conflict.

Turkey is also acutely aware that both the United States and Israel are building missile defenses, precisely against Turkey's Middle Eastern neighbors. Both countries are busy opening an umbrella that would protect them against non-conventional threats from regimes regarded as intrinsically hostile to them. As these umbrellas go up, Turkish strategic planners agree that Turkey cannot afford to stand outside them. The mere fact of vulnerability might make Turkey an appealing target for states effectively deterred by the United States and Israel.

There are three possibilities for the erection of a missile shield over the southeastern districts of Turkey. It could be attempted in the framework of NATO; it could be done through bilateral cooperation with the United States; or it could be developed on a trilateral basis with the United States and Israel. In many ways, the third option is the most appealing. Turkish planners have been impressed by Israel's Arrow missile system, precisely because it has been designed to meet the capabilities of Turkey's immediate neighbors. Sheer national interest may be driving Turkey toward an informal pact, linking it with the United States and Israel in an effort to counter the threat of ballistic missiles.

Nor can Turkey afford to ignore the scenario of a regional conflagration, in which Turkey might find itself alongside the United States and Israel. No one can estimate the probability of such a scenario, but it is sufficiently probable to justify some joint planning. The recent military exercise called "Anatolian Eagle," which took place in central Anatolia in Turkey in early July 2001, included air force units of Turkey, Israel, and the United States and the air defense systems of all three countries. The exercise simulated defense as well as combat operations against a comprehensive air attack. "Anatolian Eagle" involved forty-six Turkish aircraft of various categories; ten Israeli F-16 fighter aircraft, as well as two tanker aircraft and helicopters; and six U.S. F-16 fighter aircraft.1

Such trilateral military exercises have put in place a mechanism for advanced military coordination among Turkey, the United States and Israel. They contradict Turkey's previous Cold War policy, which was predicated on non-involvement in U.S. plans designed specifically to back up Israel. But the threat of WMD and ballistic missiles has made for a fundamental change in the Turkish perspective. Europe is too distant to involve itself in Middle Eastern contingencies, and NATO has become unpredictable. Turkey's efforts to build up its deterrent posture in the Middle East through cooperation with Israel actually constitute a prudent measure, and the surest way to reduce risks that might develop along Turkey's southern frontiers.

The Quid Pro Quo

It is important for Turks to recognize that military cooperation with Israel is not simply a matter of technology transfer. Certainly there is a mutual interest in the technological side, but Israel has its own peculiar security needs, and Turkey will have to seek to accommodate them, if it wishes to derive maximum benefit the relationship.

While Turkey needs technology, Israel needs space. Israel has nuclear capabilities, and it will soon have a missile shield based on the Arrow. But the deployment of Israel's nuclear arsenal is problematic, and a large-scale ballistic missile attack could penetrate Israel's shield and cause thousands of casualties. Because of Israel's small size, the density of its population, and the concentration of its military facilities, the penetration of its air defenses by even a single missile tipped with a chemical, biological, or nuclear warhead could wreak immense damage.

As a result, Israel seeks the capacity to destroy enemy missiles before their launch or soon thereafter. But Israel faces geographic limitations in taking timely and effective action against missiles launched far away or launched at very high velocity. The task is far more difficult without a forward defense capability. This is precisely what Israel seeks from Turkey.

Turkish air space borders that of Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Were any of these countries preparing to launch missiles against Israel, Israel might come to Turkey with a request to fly through Turkish air space to deliver pre-emptive or preventive strikes against ballistic missile launching sites. Israel's present capabilities are fighter-based, but it is procuring long-range bombers that could do the job from high altitudes.2

Israel might call on Turkish space for another purpose. Because Israel is so small, it needs off-shore strategic depth to sustain a credible and secure second-strike capability. In the event of a crisis, it will need foreign safe havens for its submarines and surface ships—and Turkey is perfectly positioned to provide them.

The basis for this kind of cooperation has already been laid. According to the 1996 agreement of military cooperation, each country can deploy or temporarily station its land, air and naval force units in the other country's territory. For that purpose, they can use one another's air space, airports and naval ports.3 Turkey should expect Israel to seek to give these provisions more content as their cooperation evolves. As Turkey looks to Israel to bolster its strategic deterrent, it should expect Israel to seek a strategic depth in return.

The Turkish Debate

As the relationship moves forward, it is bound to engender more debate in Turkey itself. The government and the state bureaucracy have preferred to downplay the significance of ties with Israel, and it is important to understand why.

Turkey's political direction, first set by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s, has aimed at full integration with Western Europe. In pursuit of this goal, Turkish governments have adopted a series of policies recommended by Western European governments and institutions. Turkey's political echelon and its diplomatic elite have been eager to conform to European norms, which extend to the arena of foreign and defense policy. European policy toward the Middle East is one of delicate balancing, and it is not surprising that some Turkish diplomats should seek to emulate the European preference for keeping Israel at arm's length. Paradoxically, they have allies among certain Turkish politicians on the right of the spectrum, who rely upon religious voters.

The military, which is concerned first and foremost with the security of the country, have other priorities. The military pursues them in pragmatic fashion, without a lot of deference to the niceties of diplomatic balancing.4 The military has identified enhanced military relations with Israel as a Turkish national interest, and does not care very much how this is interpreted elsewhere in the Middle East.

The problem for the military has been the exacerbation of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and particularly their media coverage. Most Turks cannot be said to have much sympathy for the Arabs in general; they are regarded as back-stabbers for their betrayal of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. But the Palestinians are another matter. The Palestinian cause has always had supporters on the religious right and the so-called "progressive" left. But they also have sympathizers in the Turkish mainstream. The Palestinians are deemed to have been faithful to the Ottoman Empire through the First World War, and many of them held high Ottoman posts and intermarried with Turks.

Military circles cannot remain indifferent to voices that have been raised in the Turkish public, criticizing ties with Israel. Media coverage of the Palestinian intifada has deeply affected much of the Turkish public, and until the violence ends, the Turkish military will have a hard sell should it move to upgrade military relations with Israel.

Turkey's Interests

But upgrade it must. The path the Turkish military has walked in its relations with Israel makes more sense than ever before. It is difficult to predict the many possible consequences of the recent terrorist attacks staged in the heart of the United States. But some things will not change. Syria will not abandon its territorial claims against Turkey. Syria and Iraq will not abandon their claims on the Turkish waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. Fundamentalist Iran will not give up its hostility to the democratic and secular principles that guide the Turkish state. All of these problems existed long before the strengthening of Turkish-Israeli relations. Were Turkey to sever those relations, it would do nothing to diminish the claims and hostility of its southern neighbors, and might even exacerbate them.

Whatever else Turks may say about Israel, they cannot argue with this simple fact: Israel makes no claims and poses no threats against Turkey. That makes it unique among the major states of the Fertile Crescent. Israel, with all its problems, may not be the perfect ally. But in this imperfect world, it would be hard to find a better one—especially in a place like the Middle East.

Mustafa Kibaroğlu is assistant professor in the Department of International Relations of Bilkent University in Ankara, where he teaches arms control, disarmament, non-proliferation, and international security.
1 Ed Blanche, "Israel and Turkey Look to Extend their Influence into Central Asia," Janes Intelligence Review, Aug. 2001, p. 34.
2 Conversations with Efraim Inbar, director of Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Ankara, June 2001.
3 Not-for-attribution conversations with Turkish diplomats and military officers.
4 Mustafa Kibaroğlu, "The Generals' Discontent," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Mar./Apr. 2001, pp. 28-30.