BACKGROUND: Basically, there were four important reasons for the close cooperation between Turkey and Israel which made eminent sense in the 1980s and 1990s.
First, Turkey and Israel had common enemies, or at least threats. Iraq and Syria were radical Arab nationalist regimes which had problems with both countries. Syria claimed part of Turkey’s territory—Iskenderun—and was backing Armenian and Kurdish terrorists against Turkey. Iraq’s ambitions under President Saddam Hussein were also chilling for Ankara. Iran, as an Islamist state, was hostile to Kemalism and promoted subversion within Turkey.
If Arab states were unhappy about Turkey’s growing proximity to Israel, they weren’t prepared to do anything about it, and had not given Ankara any great benefits previously. Moreover, as devotees of realpolitik, Turkey’s leaders thought that if Arab regimes and Iran were upset or fearful of this new alignment, it would give Turkey more leverage. While Turkish leaders complained that Israel didn’t do more actively to help Ankara win its confrontation with Syria over its safe haven for the PKK leadership, Damascus’s willingness to give in was surely related to the fact that it knew neighbors to both north and south were working together against it.
Second, and related to the previous point, was the preference of Turkey’s powerful military which wanted the close relationship with Israel. Aside from the threat assessment, the Turkish armed forces saw Israel as a source of advanced equipment and technology that would be quite useful for itself. Especially useful was Israel’s ability to upgrade existing equipment at a relatively low price.
Third, it was believed in Ankara that the relationship with Israel would help its vital connections to the United States, given the perceived strength of the pro-Israel forces there. This benefitted Turkey in regard to Greek and Armenian criticisms of the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
Finally, there were mutual economic benefits. Commerce rose to high levels. Tourism from Israel brought a lot of money into Turkey. And there was the prospect of water sales, though these have never really materialized.
But perhaps more important it related to Turkey’s need for a new strategy as the Cold War had ground to an end. Turkey’s big asset, and the basis of its NATO membership, was Ankara’s value in confronting the USSR and its satellite states. How could Turkey replace this lost rationale and maintain its value to the West, whose approval it sought and whose aid it needed? The road to Washington thus was seen as going through Jerusalem (though Turkish policymakers might have said “Tel Aviv.”)
These three factors have all eroded, in part due to objective changes in the world though to a very large degree due to the AKP taking Turkey down an Islamic conservative path. While previous governments had their criticisms of Israel, if the AKP were not in power, the bilateral link would continue rather than being terminated.
Basically, of the four reasons cited above, the armed forces’ and commercial interests have not changed at all. The same applies, to a slightly lesser degree, of Ankara’s need and desire for good relations with Washington. Under a non-AKP government, all these would remain pretty constant.
The one change has been the collapse of one previous threat—Iraq—and the weakening of another, Syria, which no longer poses a Kurdish problem either, to the point that it wanted to avoid antagonizing Turkey. Yet even these external changes would not have been sufficient to sabotage the Turkish-Israeli relationship.
IMPLICATIONS: From the AKP’s standpoint, however, all but the commercial factor are of limited value. Indeed, the AKP government uses anti-Israel and even outright anti-Semitic sentiment to build its base of support. Meanwhile, the AKP regime’s passion for Hamas in the Gaza Strip is not matched by any profound concern toward the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Rather than view Syria and Iran as threats, the AKP government sees these countries as allies. Relations with both countries have steadily tightened. Turkish-Syrian relations have become a virtual love fest with regular visits, agreements, and cooperation.
Rather than have common enemies, then, it could be suggested that the new alignment of Turkey with Iran and Syria have a common enemy in Israel. The Turkish military has faced a steady weakening of its political influence, due both to European Union pressure and to the AKP’s strenuous efforts. The cancellation of the planned Anatolian Eagle joint military maneuvers after six successful such exercises is telling. Although it can be assumed that the armed forces are indeed unhappy with the Turkish government’s change of course and would prefer that the close alignment with Israel continues, it has far less say in the matter.
Furthermore, the AKP-run Turkey no longer needs Israel as help in maintaining Ankara’s standing in Washington. On one hand, its status with the United States is secure; on the other hand, that connection is far less important for the Turkish government than what it used to be. Israel, in turn, is not in a good position to inflict costs on Turkey for Ankara’s hostile, even insulting, behavior though Israeli policymakers have no illusions about the end of the special relationship. There is serious consideration of cancelling some major arms sales, especially given new fears that the technology could find its way to Iran and Syria. In addition, Israeli tourism fell off sharply, at least temporarily, and Turkish Jews knew their future in Turkey is uncertain.
It should be understood that Israel does not want to respond to the AKP’s hostility by taking steps that would be seen as “anti-Turkey,” such as vigorously backing Armenian genocide resolutions or conducting an anti-Turkey campaign in the United States. Israeli policy makers still harbor the hope that in a post-AKP future – although that may be difficult to envisage at the current moment – more moderate forces in Turkey will eventually prevail and at least rebuild a friendly bilateral relationship with Israel, if not return to the past alignment.
However, Jerusalem cannot be expected to treat Turkey as a fair-minded adjudicator; Israel will hardly accept Turkey as mediator between Israel and Syria or between Israel and Hamas. At the same time, Israeli leaders will avoid if possible any confrontation with Turkey which Ankara would use as an excuse to turn the temperature down even further.
Given the AKP’s ideological orientation, its redefinition of Turkish interests and Israel’s lack of leverage, the relationship appears doomed. The sole real question is how fast and obviously the AKP will move to express publicly—and sometimes demagogically—its hostility in the way that was done during the Gaza War of early 2009.
There is some reason to believe that the Turkish military could play some continuing role as a restraining factor, while American criticism (more likely from Congress than from the White House), and the desire to maintain Israel’s trade and tourism might also restrain the AKP government. Perhaps the most powerful issue in this regard is any lingering hope by the Turkish government that it could play a major diplomatic role in Israel-Palestinian, Arab-Israeli issues.
CONCLUSIONS: Israeli decision makers and opinion makers—except for a very small group of marginal voices whose influence might well be overestimated in Ankara—fully appreciate the momentous character of what has taken place. In contrast, the reactions so far of the mainstream opinion makers in Turkey suggest that there is little appreciation of the fact that the Turkish-Israeli alignment was a mutually beneficiary one, that it not only served the two countries well in economic terms, but that it above all contributed to regional stability. As was the case when Prime Minister Erdoğan assailed Israel during and after the Gaza War, the anti-Israeli stance of the AKP government enjoys support across the ideological spectrum. It should however be noted that there is some apprehension that the stance taken toward Israel could create tensions in U.S.-Turkish-relations.
Yet, the absence of any substantial, public criticism of the Turkish government’s break with Israel does suggest the Turkish-Israeli relationship lacked deeper roots in Turkish society, and hence the potential to become a permanent one.
Barry Rubin is editor of Turkish Studies and of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. He was the first Israeli exchange professor in Turkey and is author of many books on Turkish history, politics, and foreign policy. Professor Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center <http://www.gloria-center.org> and writes the “Rubin Reports” blog <http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com>.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".