Israel Tries Mending Eroded Alliance With Turkey

Israel Tries Mending Eroded Alliance With Turkey

By K. Gajendra Singh
Al-Jazeerah, July 23, 2004

When questioned by journalists during his visit to Turkey last
September, whether the United States was working to create a new axis
between India, Turkey and Israel, Indian prime minister Atal Bihari
Vajpayee replied in the negative, but added that India was expanding
its defence co-operation to a higher level. The question was posed
because Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon had visited India a few
weeks earlier, during which a number defence co-operation agreements
were signed and many decades long relationship between Turkey and
Israel had blossomed almost to a level of an alliance with Israeli
and Turkish air force jets exercising together over central Anatolia.

But the Turkish Israeli relationship has recently come under severe
strain after Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly
characterized Israel’s policy in Gaza as’ state terrorism’ and media
reports claimed that Israel was interfering in Iraqi Kurdistan which
could have adverse repercussions among Turkey’s own Kurds in
adjoining south east.

Israel’s deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Ankara in mid July
to mend deteriorating relations between the two countries. Before
returning home he said “I was reassured of the continuity and
stability of relations. ” The visit for an economic joint commission
meeting by Olmert was the first high-level contact after Prime
Minister Erdogan’s harsh criticism of Sharon’s policies. To which
Israel would have normally replied sharply but it needs its only
friend in the region, Turkey.

Olmert’s visit began on a wrong note with an “appointment crisis”
with Prime Minister Erdogan leaving Ankara for holidays, a few hours
before Olmert’s arrival, after holding talks with Syrian Prime
Minister Naji al- Otri. Israel said that Olmert’s visit could not be
proponed as he was busy in Brussels. It was as well. In his May 25
meeting with Israeli Infrastructure Minister Yousef Paritzky, Erdogan
asked the Israeli minister: “What is the difference between
terrorists, who kill Israeli civilians and Israel, which also kills

But it was an article in New Yorker magazine by veteran US journalist
Seymour Hersh about Israel providing training to Peshmarga commando
units in north Iraq and running covert operations in neighbouring
countries which brought out in the open brewing differences between
Turkey and Israel. The media reports were denied by both Israel and
north Iraq Kurdish leadership. But Turkey was far from convinced.

Israel is also reportedly infiltrating agents into Iran to plot
Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program for a possible pre-emptive
strikes by the Israeli Air Force. Israel believes that Tehran is
about a year away from a breakthrough in that program and is
accelerating its Shehab intermediate-range ballistic missile program.
Israel would prefer a weak and decentralized Iraq if not a divided

According to Beirut’s Daily Star of 17 July, ` it appears that
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, one of Erdogan’s closest confidants,
was behind the leak on Israeli interference in Kurdistan, to
demonstrate Ankara’s deepening anxiety that Kurdish aspirations of
independence will be fueled by Israeli interference. Indeed, the US
debacle in Iraq is driving neighbors Turkey, Syria and Iran into each
other’s arms as all fear chaos in Iraq in the coming months’ It added
that ` Erdogan’s government has embarked upon a high-profile
diplomatic effort to bolster relations with the Arab and Muslim world
which were blighted by Israel’s 1996 military agreements with Turkey.

Turkey temporarily withdrew its ambassador and consul- general from
Israel. Relations took a turn for the worse when the Israeli airline
El Al had to suspend for two weeks 6 weekly flights to Turkey from
June 24 in a row over security at Istanbul airport.

Annual trade between the two countries now amounts to $1.4bn
excluding defence sector. Last year, more than 300,000 Israeli
tourists (8% of population ) visited Turkey. Israelis find Turkey
(and a few other countries like Romania) safer for holidays to escape
tensions at home. During Paritzky’s visit agreements were signed for
a US$800 million deal for the construction of three power plants in
Israel. In March, the two sides signed an agreement for Turkey to
sell to Israel more than 50 million cubic meters of water annually
for the next 20 years.

Strained relations between Turkey and Israel caused serious concern
to USA. US president George W. Bush asked Erdogan ` to tighten
Turkey’s relationship with Israel.’ Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot
said that Washington’s concerns were conveyed by Bush in Ankara prior
to the June NATO summit in Istanbul. It added that Bush stressed that
friendly relations between Turkey and Israel would `contribute
towards the best interests of the United States and expressed concern
that an escalation in tension may spark instability in the Middle

Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
commented recently. “The groundwork of the Turkish-Israeli
relationship as it stands in Turkey is eroding. It’s too early to be
alarmist, but I would say that the relationship is under a serious
challenge.” “What once was a marriage of love has become a marriage
of convenience,” said Dr Anat Lapidot-Furilla, a research fellow at
Hebrew University’s Truman Institute in Jerusalem. “It is obvious
that the ‘strategic alliance’ is in a period of erosion,” commented
Turkish columnist Erdal Guven in Radikal.

History of Turkish- Israeli Relations;

Through out history Turks had good relations with the Jews. When
expelled from Spain, Jews found shelter with the Ottoman empire. Even
after the gut wrenching events of the First World War, when the
Ottoman empire collapsed, Armenians were massacred, Christians
exchanged with the Turks from Greece, Jews continued to live in
Turkey, mostly in Istanbul, providing the financial acumen earlier
supplied by Armenians and Christians.

There has been no love lost between the Arabs and the Turkic people.
Many Turks have still not forgiven the Arabs for stabbing the
Ottomans in the back in First World War by the Arab revolt led by
Lawrence of Arabia. After all, the Sultan Caliph in Istanbul was the
guardian of Muslim sacred shrines in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
Turkey joined Organisation of Islamic Conference ( OIC) only to
garner support from Muslim states on Cyprus. Economic relations
improved with Arab states when post 1973 jump in oil prices brought
in sudde! n wealth.

But after the 1967 was and even after the 1973 war when the Arabs
used the oil weapon, Turkey did not break relations with Israel.
There was close cooperation on rightist and leftist and revolutionary
student movements which affected Turkey, specially during 1960s and
1970s. In 1971 Turkish students assassinated Israeli Consul General
in Istanbul, a former senior Mossad officer.

Israel has developed a top rate defence industry based on support and
cooperation from USA. After the end of cold war, Turkey specially its
armed forces felt a little left out. So Turkey sold itself as a
barrier between Europe and the Middle East and the Caucasus, both
`cauldrons of fundamentalism and chaos. ` Its informal alliance with
Israel, encouraged by Washington was useful for U S grants of
sophisticated arms and equipment.

The fall of the Berlin wall also brought in far-reaching shifts in
geo-strategic parameters. The potential threats from the Middle East
grew with many countries acquiring stockpiles of chemical and
biological weapons, and arsenals of ballistic missiles. Beyond
potential threats, terrorist groups like PKK and others in the region
were another menace. They could acquire chemical and biological
agents. So Turkey could no longer afford to overlook possible new
threats from the Middle East.

While Turkish policy towards Israel started changing in early 1990s,
only in 1996 the two went public and signed an agreement on military
cooperation. Much has written about this evolving relationship with
some political analysts calling it an “axis,” an “entente” or even an
`alliance. Of course there are no explicit commitments to assist one
another in the event of an armed conflict but a careful
interpretation of the provisions of the document shows that the
enhanced cooperation could even reach levels usually among allies.

Many joint military air and naval exercises were carried out since
1996. For example the so called “Anatolian Eagle,” took place in
central Anatolia in early July 2001. It 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. Such trilateral
military exercises have put in place a mechanism for advanced
military coordination.

Then 11 September attacks against USA complicated the strategic

But the Palestinian cause always had supporters on the religious
right, the “progressive” left and even in the Turkish mainstream. The
Palestinians were faithful to the Ottoman Empire in the First World
War. Many held high Ottoman posts and intermarried with Turks. Media
coverage of the Palestinian intifada further affected the Turkish
public. Then in November, 2002 elections the Justice and Development
party (AKP), which has Islamic roots, won 2/3rd seats , although it
got only 34% of votes cast . Over 90% of Turkish population opposed
US invasion of Muslim Iraq, which the secular Turkish military was
very keen to join forcing the parliament to reject US request to open
a ! second front against Iraq. Turkish -US relations nose-dived , but
are now satisfactory.

Israel guilty in North Iraq unless proved innocent

When Erdogan publicly criticized Ariel Sharon’s policies in Occupied
Territories accusing Israel of `state terrorism `, members of his
ruling AKP, were even harsher, lambasting US policies too in Iraq.
Turkish -Israeli relationship reached a low point. Erdogan turned
down an invitation to visit Israel and temporarily withdrew his
ambassador and consul general from Israel.

Then the New Yorker revelations made the simmering differences
public. Turks were aware of Israeli activities in north Iraq. On June
23, the Israeli ambassador to Turkey, Pini Aviv, denied the New
Yorker report that Israel took advantage of the US occupation of Iraq
by expanding Israeli presence in the northern Iraq. He reassured the
Turkish foreign ministry that Israel! had decided long ago not to
meddle in Iraqi affairs.

Foreign minister Gul accepted Israeli denials. “The Israelis tell us
those allegations are not true. But everybody understands regional
and Turkish sensitivity to this issue, so we have to believe what we
are told,” the semi-official Anatolia news agency quoted Gul as
saying. “I hope our trust [of Israel] won’t prove wrong,” he added.

Turkey’s problem with its own Kurds

Turkey has serious problems with its own Kurds, who form 20 percent
of the population. But after 5 years of comparative peace and quiet
in Turkey’s southeast, there is now some upsurge in violent rebel
activity. Kurdish rebellion since 1984 against the Turkish state led
by Abdullah Ocalan of the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) cost
over 35,000 lives, including 5,000 soldiers. With a third of the
Turkish army tied up in the southeast, the cost of countering the
insurgency at its height amounted to between $6 billion to $8 billion
a year.

When ever there has been chaos and instability in north Iraq, as
during the Iraq-Iran war in 1980s or after 1991 Gulf war, PKK
activity peaked up in Turkey. The rebellion died down after the
arrest and trial of Ocalan in 1999, when a ceasefire was declared by
PKK. After a Turkish court commuted to life imprisonment the death
sentence passed on Ocalan in 2002 and the parliament granted rights
for the use of the Kurdish language, some of the root causes of the
Kurdish rebellion were removed. TV broadcasts in Kurdish have already
begun. Till mid-1980s even the use of word Kurd was taboo and could
even lead to imprisonment.

Turkey fears that any moves to bolster Kurdish autonomy in Iraq could
pave the way to the formation of a Kurdish state in Iraq and
eventually fuel separatism among its own Kurds. Turkey also uses the
pretext of protecting the rights of its ethnic cousins the Turkmen,
traditionally settled around Kirkuk.

Olmert’s Visit to Ankara

Ehud Olmert is an influential figure in the Israeli Cabinet and is in
charge of ministries of industry, trade and labor. Apart from a
meeting with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, he had a “friendly,
sincere and serious discussion” with Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.
Olmert said that “Gul repeated again the commitment of Turkey to
carry on the relations with Israel on the friendly basis as in the
past.’ Olmert added that Israeli officials would soon visit Turkey to
“continue the dialogue that we started. He also assured the Turkish
leaders that Israel was not engaged in any relationship with Iraqi
Kurds in northern Ira! q that co! uld jeopardize Turkish interests.

Gul made no public comments but many analysts believe that Turkey is
reassessing relations that were so close in the past. Erdogan offered
a warm reception to Syria’s visiting prime minister, Naji al- Otri
hours before Olmert’s arrival which Abdullah said was just a
coincidence. There was an important Iranian delegation too in town.

Olmert played down Erdogan’s outbursts and his not being able to meet
with him in an interview with CNN-Turk television. “The two countries
enjoy economic relations that are constantly growing deeper. Our
relations are stable and will keep on growing. Israel wants to
maintain its strategic ties with Turkey,” said Olmert. He also denied
reports that Israeli agents were operating in northern Iraq and
provided training to Iraqi Kurdish peshmergas. “Israel has no
relations with Kurds in the north of Iraq. Turkish authorities know
about all the details. We want a united Iraq. We would never act
against the interests of Turkey,” Olmert told CNN-Turk.

In Olmert’s talks with Abdullah Gül, apart from bilateral relations,
the two sides focused on Turkey`s role in the Middle East peace
process and recent developments. Olmert said that Israel considered
Turkey a powerful force for stability in the Middle East. “Turkey
would play an important role and would be a great power in the
region,’ he added. Olmert also informed Gul about plans for the
Israeli army withdrawal from the Gaza strip but cautioned that
preparations would require some time. “One must understand that
pulling out the settlements is not a simple operation. It has to be
carefully prepared, and! it takes time. We are in favor of
accelerating ! the preparations anyway if it is possible, so we shall
see,” he said.

Abdullah Gül on the other hand said “Sustainable peace in the Middle
East should be provided immediately. Turkey is ready to do its best,
” Gül said. He reiterated Turkey`s readiness to mediate with a view
to finding a solution to the Middle East conflict.

Olmert told the daily Sabah that Israel proposed setting up a
telephone hotline between Israel and Turkey to help avoid further
tensions between the two allies. Israel was willing to give detailed
information about their policies on a daily basis.

Yilmaz Oztuna wrote in Turkiye that ` rescuing Palestinians from
oppression and forging an Arab-Israeli peace, — is a `mission
impossible.’ Former US President Bill Clinton couldn’t manage it.
This knot won’t be untied anytime soon. — We don’t have the power to
be a Middle East peace broker. Even if we had it, this would go
against our interests. Anyway, what Mideast country would ask us to
serve as mediator? These are hard political realities, not stuff for
romantics and idealists.’

Yes, but the Turkish offer to mediate in Middle East is a policy
change brought in by Erdoagn government, which earlier was of benign
neglect. Once annoyed when told that there were El Al planes in
Istanbul, Turkish president Turgut Ozal told the visiting Saudi
foreign minister that it was Turkish policy not to meddle in disputes
amongst its former subjects.

Olmert meets with Turkish Media

Olmert was more assertive in his breakfast meeting with Turkish
journalists. When asked whether Turkey would undertake a role to find
a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Olmert said that
Israel was carrying out unilateral action (with drawl from Gaza and
parts of the West bank) as setting up a dialogue would be a waste of
time. It was to change the situation in the region. Neither Turkey
nor the United States could do much now adding that Turkey would play
an important role in future to provide stability and promote
democracy in the region. Stressing that unilateral wit! hdrawal o! f
Israel from Gaza strip was of historic importance, Olmert stressed
that it was being achieved under the Likud leadership.

When questioned on relations between Israel and Syria, Olmert said
that Israel gave priority to withdrawal from Gaza strip and formation
of the coalition government. Asked about the West Bank barrier,
recently ruled as a violation of international laws by the
International Court of Justice, Olmert said it was purely a defensive
measure. ” Once the terror ends, the fence will be removed. The fence
is reversible, death is not.” The standard Israeli line.

Olmert and his Turkish counterpart for the Joint Economic Committee
meeting, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Minister Sami Guclu, set an
ambitious goal of doubling the two-way trade. Olmert said that an
effort would be made to create better investment climate for the
Turkish companies, which were doing well in Israel. He showed
interest in energy projects in southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP)
(the project is in Turkey’s Kurdish region across Iraqi Kurdistan ).
Other areas identified for cooperation were in technology,
telecommunication, agriculture and infrastructure.

Recent changes in Turkey

Prime minister Erdogan’s AK party emerged from the ashes of 4 Islamic
parties, banned earlier by the secular establishment led by the armed
forces, but it now feels more secure. Taking advantage of Europe
Union requirement to harmonise Turkey’s system to Copenhagen
criteria, AKP has successfully sidelined the military, which had
exercised power through its domination of the National Security
Council (NSC). From a top policy making forum, NSC has now been
reduced to an advisory role. Compared to earlier regimes perceived as
corrupt, AKP has further strengthened itself by following transparent
governance. It did very well in April municipal elections.

There is a clear erosion in the strategic relationship between Turkey
and Israel which denotes a decline of the Turkish military in
politics, said Amnon Barzilie in Haa’rez. A decision to put Turkey on
a course towards EU membership would strengthen Erdogan, and weaken
the military, according to Israeli Defense Ministry. EU membership
would mean that the Turkish government would wield all its influence
to make arms deals with EU countries instead of Israel.

Since 1996, when the strategic dialogue between Israel and Turkey
began, numerous deals were signed with the Israeli arms industry in
order to “punish” EU countries, which refused EU membership to
Turkey, the Israeli defense establishment says. In December, the
heads of the EU will decide on a date for Turkey to begin accession
talks. While full membership is unlikely soon, some via media would
be found with Turkey coming closer to EU policies

According to this analysis a EU decision to delay membership for
Turkey would strengthen the Turkish military which could even depose
Erdogan and call for fresh elections. One of the first moves would
then be a large arms deal with Israel. Now, the Turkish military has
no choice but to sit tight. Erdogan’s harsh criticism of Israel’s
actions in the territories was a powerful expression of that change.
But Turkey still looks at Israel as its partner in this part of the
world and, therefore, where security and economic interests are
concerned, there would be no change for the worse. Israeli Defense
analysts noted that the U.S. sees strategic importance in ! Turkey’s
joining the EU, as it regards Turkey as a model to prove that there
is no contradiction between a Muslim state and a democratic one.

Dr. Alon Liel, chairman of the Turkey-Israel Chamber! of Commerce
believed that the Turkish army is getting weaker, but that the
Defense Ministry is suffering from fixed ideas and indifference.
“It’s true that in the short term Turkey’s entrance into the EU will
harm arms sales to Israel but the implications for the Middle East
will be so dramatic that in the final analysis it will work to
benefit Israel,” Liel said. This is a farfetched analysis.

Without question, the Iraq war and, in particular, the developments
in northern Iraq have kindled a rapprochement between Turkey and Iran
and Turkey and Syria in spite of US opposition. Turkey now pursues a
strategy of strengthening its ties with the countries in the region.
Since AKP’s coming to power two years ago, Turkey has strengthened
relations with other eastern countries, while making all efforts t! o
fulfill Copenhagen criteria to join EU. EU countries to some extent,
are trying to maintain their relationship with Tehran and Damascus. A
Turkish diplomat said that this should be evaluated, not as
opposition to the United States, but as a result of the recent

India- Israel relations;

Of course relations between India and Israel would now remain
unobtrusive and in low key. Even the Bhartiya Janta party led Indian
government had balanced Sharon’s September visit last year by
receiving a week earlier Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Sha’ath
as President Yasser Arafat was under siege. Two days before the
Sharon’s visit a senior Indian official said, `We accept and
recognize Yasser Arafat as the President of Palestine.’

There were many write ups against Sharon’ visit and his policies in
Indian media. Opposition parties from the left of the centre i.e. the
communist parties; the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and
the Janata Dal (S) participated in protests against the visit. The
Congress party, then in opposition, did not join in the protests but
made it clear that the party’s position of supporting the Palestine
cause and an independent state of Palestine remained undiluted.

US-Israeli-Indian axis

The idea of so called tripartite US-Israeli -Indian axis was mooted
after the September 11 attacks on USA and was publicly broached by
India’s national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra in Washington at
the annual meeting of the American Jewish Committee, where many
American congressmen were also present. After emphasizing the
similarities between the three countries, he said: “India, the US and
Israel have some fundamental similarities. We are all democ! racies,
sharing a common vision of pluralism, tolerance and equal
opportunity. Stronger India-US relations and India-Israel relations
have (therefore) a natural logic”. He then called for the
establishment of a US-Israel-India axis to fight “the menace of
global terrorism” by military means, i.e. “fight terror with terror”.

The proposal was warmly welcomed by US officials and pro-Israeli
lobby. Jews and Indian Americans also came together in USA. Despite
their obvious differences, the alliance has the potential to increase
the clout of the two communities which are about 5.2 million Jews and
1.8 million Indians, but highly educated, affluent and attached to
democratic homelands facing what they increasingly view as a common
enemy. But how much influence it has exercised on USA on India’s core
problem of cross border terrorism!

Ed Blanche wrote in Beirut’s `The Daily Star ` on July 17,’ In India,
the demise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
government in parliamentary elections in May was seen as potentially
major setback for Israel’s plans for extending its influence into the
subcontinent to help contain Pakistan’s nuclear and ballistic missile
programs and into the energy-rich Muslim republics of Central Asia in
conjunction with the Americans.

The BJP had become a major buyer of Israeli arms and
counter-intelligence expertise and had forged unprecedented ties with
the Jewish state. The new government under the Congress Party, which
throughout the Cold War was staunchly pro-Arab and has said it will
take a more even-handed approach to the Middle East, is not expected
to be so pro-Israel. The new government unveiled its policy road map
on May 27, which said that India would remain committed to the cause
of a Palestinian homeland and that new impetus would be given to
diplomatic and economic relations with Arab states.

A recent scandal in India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research
and Analysis Wing (RAW), in which a senior officer recruited by the
CIA defected as security authorities closed in on him, has raised
fears that the US and Israeli intelligence services have penetrated
India’s intelligence establishment.

Asian intelligence sources told The Daily Star that Israel’s Mossad,
as well as the CIA, sought to recruit Indian intelligence operatives
attending seminars in Israel in recent years and apparently succeeded
in some cases. All this is likely to further damage Israel-India

US and Israeli analysts believe that the Congress Party, which
restored relations with Israel in 1992, will issue some tough
statements, “then things will settle down.” But even the Americans
are bracing for some policy shifts by the Congress-led government in
New Delhi, which relies on the support of leftists, who oppose
proximity to the US and the occupation of Iraq, to survive. Some US
officials in Washington, along with Jewish organizations, are deeply
! concerned about a rupture in Indian-Israeli relations that were
enthusiastically supported by the Bush administration, especially the
hawks in the P! entagon, in part to help counterbalance China,
America’s emerging strategic rival.

There is no expectation at this time that either Ankara or New Delhi
plan to sever relations with Israel. But it is clear that their
relationships with the Jewish state are becoming more hard-headed,
particularly because of Israeli heavy-handedness with the
Palestinians and because of Iraq. Whether this will result in reining
in Sharon remains to be seen, but some big changes may be in the

Conclusion And if US can not enforce its will, how can Israel hope to
shape the region. Disruption and chaos, yes . And if US were forced
to withdraw even with a face saving solution with help from
international community, it might then look for a scapegoat.

If Israel wants to play a role in creating an independent Kurdistan,
it would become a willing tool in the regional balance at US behest.
But such a development would be inimical to Turkey and would not be
accepted by it. By now it should be clear that the developments in
Iraq would be determined by the growing insurgency now blossoming
into full-fledged resistance for removing US occupation and for
freedom. Certainly Bush administration and even those opposing it now
in USA can see the strength, depth and ! resilience of Iraqis who
refuse to be subjugated. How would the dice roll for Iraqi Kurds is
difficult to predict. But a break up of Iraq would have unforeseen
consequences even beyond the region. The struggle has only begun in
full earnest.

With a stock of nearly 100 nuclear bombs as reported in the media,
Egypt shackled and thus neutralized and with a US veto on demand,
Israel has shown itself as a wild and irresponsible state in the
region, bent upon creating chaos.

(K Gajendra Singh, served as Indian Ambassador to Turkey and
Azerbaijan in 1992-96. Prior to that, he served as ambassador to
Jordan (during the 1990-91 Gulf war), Romania and Senegal. He is
currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. The
views expressed here are his own.- [email protected] )