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Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 5 Table of Contents
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May 2001 


Ankara's Strategic Alignment with Tel Aviv: Implications for Turkey and the Region
by Thomas Patrick Carroll

Thomas Patrick Carroll is a freelance writer and former officer in the Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency. His areas of specialization are Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean affairs.

Peres and Cem
In early April, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres paid an official visit to Turkey, where he met with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, and Foreign Minister Ismail Cem.

The visit was friendly and mutually supportive. Although the Turks recommended to Peres that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) suspend military operations against the Palestinian Authority (PA), Ankara's comments were restrained and respectful, taking Israeli security interests into serious account. President Sezer, for example, worried that if the PA were mortally wounded, hardliners and extremists might fill the void. And Foreign Minister Cem expressed concern that the spiraling violence could fuel anti-Western sentiment in the region.

On the Israeli side, Peres offered sympathy and encouragement in the face of Turkey's latest financial crisis, recalling Israel's own battles with inflation and economic instability. He voiced support for Turkey's continuing bid for full integration into the European Union (EU). Peres left no doubt about his solidarity with the Turkish government on the question of the 1915 Armenian massacres, saying that the fate of the Armenians in Anatolia was a 'tragedy', not a genocide. He also made special note of the esteem in which Turkey is held by the 'Jewish lobby' in Washington, and said he hoped the lobby would continue to lend support to Turkish causes.

The Peres meetings in Ankara ended with talk of greater economic cooperation, including an announcement that the long-discussed plan to sell Turkish water to Israel may finally become a reality. The only sticking point left, said Peres, is the price.

An Unexpected Entente

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Peres visit to Ankara was how unremarkable it seemed. Excellent relations between Turkey and Israel became a fixture of the regional landscape during the 1990s, particularly in the military arena, and show no signs of waning. If anything, they are likely to grow stronger.

Yet the new alignment between Muslim Turkey and the Jewish State is remarkable.1 Of course, from the Israeli side, it is easy to understand. After all, Tel Aviv's strategy has long been to reach over and beyond its hostile neighbors, fostering ties with states on the periphery - Iran in the time of the Shah, for instance, or Turkmenistan and various African states today.

From the Turkish side, however, the story is different. The strategic alignment with Israel was surprising when it took shape, and we are only now beginning to appreciate its implications. Ankara's decision to align itself openly and unapologetically with Tel Aviv represents an extraordinary strategic shift, with regional implications stretching far into the new century. And the decision to make the alignment a reality truly was Ankara's. That Israel would jump at the opportunity to enter into a strategic military relationship with Turkey was a given. The Israelis would have been foolish to pass up an opportunity like that, and the Israelis are no fools. But since the time of Atatürk, Turkey has generally pursued a foreign policy marked by conservatism, prudence, and a desire to avoid provocation. There have been a few exceptions (e.g. the 1974 Cyprus intervention), but not many. For Turkey, the alignment with Israel was truly a break with the past.

Birth of the Alignment

Reliant Mermaid
The Turkish/Israeli alignment started to take shape publicly in 1993, when Israel's Defense Minister, General David Ivry, led a delegation to Ankara to discuss military cooperation. Visits to Israel by Turkish Foreign Minister Hikmet Çetin, Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, and President Süleyman Demirel followed in quick succession.

The Agreement on Security and Secrecy and the Memorandum on Mutual Understanding and Cooperation were signed in 1994, the former setting the ground rules for the sharing of intelligence, and the latter facilitating the mutual fight against terrorism. The Military Training Cooperation Agreement, which provided for the exchange of military information and, most dramatically, for the use of each other's airspace for pilot training, followed in 1996. Suddenly, Israeli fighter aircraft were roaring at treetop level over the Anatolian steppes, much to the consternation of Turkey's Arab neighbors to the south.

And that was just the beginning. Weapons development and modernization programs; strategic dialogues and intelligence briefings; the joint Turkish-Israeli-U.S. 'Reliant Mermaid' series of naval exercises; tourism; commercial investment and more have followed in the years since.

Historical Friendship

Strategic alignments between nations are based upon present-day common interests, not historical friendships, and Turkey's alignment with Israel is no exception. But friendship between peoples, when it exists, can make strategic alignments easier to build and maintain.2

Fortunately for Ankara and Tel Aviv, good relations between Turks and Jews go back at least to the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Mehmet the Conqueror provided the Jews a safe and secure home, where they flourished. When Jews suffered persecution in Spain in 1492, the Ottomans offered them sanctuary and thousands migrated to Turkey. Jewish roots in Turkish society were touchingly illustrated during the 1996 visit by Israeli President Ezer Weizman, who told of his Turkish-speaking grandparents and of his father who had been a doctor in the Ottoman army.

In the early 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire faltered and fell, the Jews made the transition to the Turkish Republic much better than the Greeks and Armenians, partly because the Jews made no territorial demands. During World War II, Turkey gave refuge to 200 German academics fleeing the Nazis, 150 of them Jews. And in 1948, Turkey was the only Muslim country to recognize the newly created State of Israel.

A little over 50 years later, on 17 August 1999, Turkey suffered a terrible earthquake. Death and devastation spread throughout the region around the Sea of Marmara, including densely populated Istanbul. Within hours, teams of Israeli soldiers, doctors, and rescue workers were on the scene. They provided comfort and saved scores of lives, repaying the Turks in kind for their centuries-old generosity toward the Jews. It was an act of charity vividly remembered in Turkey today.

A living link in this chain of friendship is the Jewish community in Turkey. Although there are only about 22,000 (rapidly assimilating) Jews left, they continue to play an important role in the country's intellectual and social life. And, of course, most have relatives in Israel.

There is some animosity toward Israel and the Jews to be found in Turkey, mostly among the newly influential Islamists, led by Necmettin Erbakan. The danger this poses for the future of the alignment should not be discounted, but neither should it be exaggerated. As disturbing (and foolish) as Erbakan's pontifications about a 'Jewish conspiracy' sound, his views and rhetoric are mild when compared to what one routinely hears out of Damascus, or reads in the Cairo newspapers. And, after all, it was during the 1996-7 Erbakan coalition government that so much of the Turkish/Israeli alignment was cemented. To be sure, it was the Turkish military, not Erbakan, that took the initiative with Israel. Still, Erbakan did not get in the way.

Turkey's Motives and Opportunities

As stated earlier, the reasons behind Israel's participation in the alignment are clear. Tel Aviv wants a strong, reliable counter-weight to the Arabs, especially Syria and Iraq. The motives and opportunities on the Turkish side are not as obvious, but they are real.

First, even with all the dangers Turkey faces from its rambunctious neighbors, Ankara is less threatened today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. The difference between now and then is the absence of the Soviet Union. With the Soviets gone, there is no single power in the region capable of defeating the formidable Turkish army, with 800,000 men on active duty, over 11 million fit for service, and 18.5 million available if needed. Moreover, without their Soviet patrons, regional powers like Syria are much less intimidating than they used to be. Put plainly, this means military force is now a realistic policy option for Turkey, as it has not been since the death of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. And the alignment with Israel makes this option even more credible.

Ankara tested the strategic utility of the new Turkish/Israeli alignment in 1998. For well over a decade, Syria had supported the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a bloody terrorist insurgency in southeastern Turkey. Damascus provided weapons, refuge, and training camps for PKK fighters, and a home in Damascus for Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK. Over the years, Ankara had pleaded, cajoled, and threatened Damascus in an unsuccessful effort to convince Assad to abandon his support for the PKK. Finally, in late 1998, Ankara issued an ultimatum. Either Damascus would end her support for the PKK and expel Öcalan from Syria, or she would face war with Turkey. And what did the Syrians do? They cut-off their support to the PKK and kicked Abdullah Öcalan out of the country. Although Turkey's 'Israel card' was never publicly mentioned, it clearly had its effect.

Second, Turkey and Israel both live in dread of loss of territory. Israel is haunted by the fear of invading armies crashing through the streets of Tel Aviv and Beersheba, which of course is why returning territory captured in the 1967 war (the famous 'land for peace' formula) has always been a controversial proposition. One can easily drive the length of the country in a day, and Damascus is visible from the Golan Heights when the air is clear. From Israel's point of view (or at least from the point of view of her hawks), a single mistake could literally end the territorial existence of the nation.

Unlike Israel, Turkey's territorial concerns are political rather than military. The memory of the attempt by the victorious Allies to dismember the nation after the First World War, immortalized in the infamous 1922 Treaty of Sévres, lives on in the Turkish national psyche like it happened yesterday. Ankara believes Armenia covets eastern Anatolia, that the terrorists of the PKK would carve out their own 'Kurdistan' if given half a chance, and that the Greeks would like Cyprus all to themselves.

None of these concerns are military, at least not for the most part. Nobody in the Turkish government, for instance, believes tiny, backward, poverty-stricken Armenia is a military threat to eastern Anatolia. But Ankara does fear that world opinion (especially in the United States, her most important ally) might someday turn against her on one of these issues, forcing upon her some sort of land giveaway.

This concern about territorial integrity is the main reason Turkey gets so agitated each time a Western parliament passes an 'Armenian genocide' statement. Remember, for example, how Ankara reacted with such furor when the French passed one a few months ago. If enough nations recognize a 1915 'genocide' against the Armenians, the argument goes, then the next step will be a demand for reparations, including the return of 'Armenian territory'; i.e., Van, Kars, and other provinces in eastern Turkey.

For both countries, the fear of territorial loss seems out of proportion to the actual threat. In the case of Israel, it is difficult to imagine the Israeli Air Force and IDF tank units, both world class fighting forces, losing to the military forces fielded by the Arab states these days, much less to Yasser Arafat and his motley policemen.

As for Turkish concerns, in each case the fear is larger than the reality. For example, the sober truth is that no Western government of any consequence would ever advocate breaking off Artvin and handing it over to Armenia, regardless of whatever resolution some ill-informed Congressman might endorse in order to appease the Armenians in his district. And after all these years, it does not look like anyone is going to force the Turks to do anything on Cyprus that they do not want to do.

Still, the point is not to pass judgment on the plausibility of their various threat scenarios, but to recognize that Israel understands Turkey's concerns and that Turkey knows it. Ankara believes that Israeli influence can help her diplomatically, e.g., in Washington on the Cyprus question or the Armenian controversy, and (to a lesser extent) with the EU and Ankara's application for membership.

Finally, Turkey and Israel are residents of same neighborhood, and neither get along particularly well with the people next door. The Turks fit in relatively better than the Israelis, but the key word is 'relatively'. Both nations are outsiders.

The Arabs view the Turks as former oppressors, and it is true that the Ottoman Empire was not kind to the Arabs. The Ottomans saw Europe as the important part of their empire, and treated the Arab lands as more or less a backwater.

The Arabs also see the Turks as sell-outs to Christendom. This sin started with Atatürk and his Westernizing reforms, continued through Turkey's long and active membership in NATO, and is currently manifesting itself in Ankara's efforts to join the EU and its decision to allow U.S. warplanes to fly their deadly sorties from Turkish territory into Iraq.

As for the Turks, 80 years after the founding of the Republic, the Kemalist vision of Turkey as part of the West still has a powerful hold on the national imagination, the recent rise in the importance of political Islam notwithstanding. While some Turks see Islam as an important bond between themselves and the Arabs, many do not. And even the religiously conservative (as opposed to the extreme Islamists) continue to see the West as integral to Turkey's national identity, with the late President Turgut Özal being a perfect example. Atatürk's rigid secularism was extreme, and it has surely been moderated over the past decade or so. But the basic Western-orientation of the Republic remains strong, and is most probably permanent. Apart from Islam, the Turks do not see themselves as having much in common with the Arabs. And, frankly, since the end of the Istanbul Caliphate in the 1920s, the religious ties have never counted for much.

Turkey wants to engage the Arabs, to get along, and perhaps even regain some of the old Ottoman influence in the region. But her heart is with the West (as well as with her ethnic brothers and sisters in Central Asia), not with her former imperial subjects to the south.

The Future

Barring some unforeseen disaster, Turkey's alignment with Israel is here to stay. The alignment will augment Turkey's diplomatic muscle in the parliaments of the West, and her political/military clout in the Middle East. As we enter the first few decades of the 21st century, look for Ankara to assert her regional prerogatives more strongly than she has done in 100 years. On the Tigris and Euphrates flow disputes with Iraq and Syria, Turkey will confidently pursue her interests. Should Iraq weaken or fragment, Ankara might reclaim authority over the oil fields of her old Mosul Vilayet, territory she relinquished only reluctantly.

Most importantly for the Middle East, the Turkish/Israeli alignment could be a genuine force for peace in the new century. The region desperately needs a strong and responsible military colossus to encourage (and maybe even enforce) stability in this unstable part of the world. What better candidate for this role than Ankara, in strategic concert with Tel Aviv?

Notes

  1 In using the term alignment instead of alliance, I am following a recommendation made by Bengio and Özcan. The word alignment suggests the mutuality of interests that are so prominent in the Turkish/Israeli relationship. See Ofra Bengio and Gencer Özcan, "Changing Relations: Turkish-Israeli-Arab Triangle," Perceptions: Journal of International Affairs, March-May 2000.
  2 The paradigmatic case would be that of the United States and Great Britain during the Cold War.


2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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