I wrote the following article for The Turkish Analyst, Vol. 2, No. 19 published by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Silk Road Studies Program. Here is my original text which varies slightly from that version.
By Barry Rubin
The Turkey-Israel alliance is over. After two decades plus of close cooperation, the Turkish government is no longer interested in maintaining close cooperation with Israel nor is it—for all practical purposes—willing to do anything much to maintain its good relations with Israel.
The U.S.-Turkish alliance, which goes back about six decades, is also over but much less visibly so, though the two relationships are interlinked.
And that’s one important point in the first development. If the Turkish government was really concerned about protecting the kind of tight links with America that have existed for so long, it would be far more cautious about jettisoning the old policy toward Israel.
But let’s take a step back and talk about the nature of the bilateral relationship and why it has come to an end. Basically, there were four important reasons for the close cooperation between the two countries 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—Hatay—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 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 Balkan 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 Islamist path. I would suggest that 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 relationship.
From the AKP regime’s standpoint, however, all but the commercial factor are of limited value and, of course, it is ideologically hostile to Israel. The government uses anti-Israel and even antisemitic sentiment to build its base of support. It is not so sympathetic to “Arabs” or even “Muslims” as such but to fellow Islamists. Thus, for example, 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.
Let’s go through the three non-commercial factors to see how they’ve changed for the AKP. Rather than view Syria and Iran as threats, the AKP government sees them 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, of course, has faced a steady weakening of its political influence, due both to European Union pressure and to the AKP’s strenuous efforts. Symbolic here, is the cancellation of the planned Anatolian Eagle joint military maneuvers after six successful such exercises. The armed forces may be very unhappy with the Turkish government’s behavior and prefer the close alignment continue but has far less say in the matter.
Especially intriguing is the U.S. angle. The AKP regime has the enviable situation of being able to show disrespect and a lack of cooperation with U.S. interests without paying a price for this behavior. The situation began in the Bush administration and the 2003 invasion of Iraq but has grown more intense with the Obama Administration. Since the new president views Turkey as the very model of a modern, moderate Islamist government and is reluctant to use pressure on anyone, the White House lets Turkey get away with it.
The AKP thus 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 regime.
Israel 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. There must be some hope that in a post-AKP future—if any—more moderate forces in the country would prevail and at least make the bilateral relationship a good one even if they did not return to the past alignment.
Like all politicians, those of the AKP would like to have their kebab and eat it, too. They still want to play a role as mediator between Israel and Syria as well as Israel and Hamas, yet Jerusalem is not going to play along with magnifying the importance and treating as a fair-minded adjudicator a country which it knows is so hostile. 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.
It would be nice to be able to suggest some way in which the relationship could be salvaged. Given, however, the AKP’s ideology and redefinition of Turkish interests, the weakness of the Obama Administration, and Israel’s lack of leverage, this is unlikely to happen. 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.
Finally, there is a gap between Israel and U.S. perceptions. (The Turkish-Israel issue plays no role with EU countries.) Israeli decisionmakers and opinionmakers—except for a very small group of marginal voices whose influence might well be overestimated in Ankara—understand precisely what’s happening. In contrast, U.S. counterparts are barely aware of any problem with Turkey for their own interests. One can expect that the conflict will force itself into their attention in future.
The Turkish-Israel alignment played an important and productive role in regional stability as well as for the economic well-being of both countries for some years. It was a good situation, but clearly not 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