In Sincan, a suburb of the Turkish capital of Ankara, a routine event took place on February 2, 1997. The town council sponsored a rally to commemorate "Jerusalem Day" and, as elsewhere in the Middle East, the occasion offered a chance to execrate both Israel and the Arab-Israeli peace process. On a stage featuring a large picture of Fathi Shiqaqi, late leader of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad, politicians, activists, and the guest of honor -- Iran's ambassador to Turkey -- launched into a predictable and well-received tirade.
A general view of Sincan.
In the usual course of events, this rally would attract little attention; such things happen almost daily some place around the world. In Iran and Sudan, where fundamentalists rule, the central governments themselves sponsor anti-Israel events; in Egypt and Jordan, countries where the state is formally at peace with Israel, the governments avert their eyes and permit such meetings. Even in the United States similar hate-fests take place in the ballrooms of major hotels, attended by thousands of sponsors and supporters.
But things did not go as usual in Turkey last February. The next day, a high-ranking military official told a reporter for the newspaper Hürriyet, "I followed the meeting in Sincan. I was terrified by what I observed," and a day after that the army sent 15 tanks, 20 personnel carriers, and an assortment of other military vehicles through the town. Two of those tanks just happened to "malfunction" as the convoy traversed the main road, and had to park for many hours in the very square where the meeting had earlier been held.
Nor did matters end here. The interior minister arrested the town's mayor and dismissed from office. Charging the mayor (and eleven others) with violating public order and promoting religious hatred, the state prosecutor sought a 12-year prison sentence for His Honor. The Iranian ambassador was told "Israel is our friend, you cannot talk like this about it," and was effectively expelled from Turkey -- prompting Tehran to respond by expelling the Turkish ambassador.
All this is quite stunning. A town virtually occupied for celebrating Jerusalem Day? A mayor arrested and pushed out of his job for anti-Israel remarks? A diplomatic row over an ambassador's anti-Zionism? In the Middle East in 1997 this could only take place in Turkey, the one Muslim country where a powerful institution completely rejects the demonization of Israel and instead fosters a hard kernel of pro-Israel sentiment. The events in Sincan point up an extremely significant strategic development: a budding Turkish-Israeli alignment with the potential to alter the strategic map of the Middle East, to reshape American alliances there, and to reduce Israel's regional isolation.
Ups and Downs
Relations between Turkey and Israel go back to March 1949, less than a year after Israel came into existence, when Ankara recognized the Jewish state. Establishing formal ties to Israel sent a strong message about Turkey's international orientation, bringing it close to the West even as it alienated the Arabs; as Gamal Abdel Nasser explained in 1954, "Turkey, because of its Israeli policy is disliked in the Arab world." But the Turkey-Israel tie at that time was mostly symbolic and despite efforts to make it substantial, had little content. Relations diminished in the aftermath of 1973, when Turks, bowing to the Arab oil weapon, distanced themselves from Israel. Coolness toward Israel remained for about a decade afterwards, eroding only as did the Arabs' wealth and clout. Israel and Turkey quietly enhanced intelligence cooperation in the aftermath of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon but formal and public relations remained cool.
The Oslo process that began in the summer of 1993 pleased Ankara very much, and it responded to The Handshake by finally sending an ambassador to Israel. Soon after, the Turkish foreign minister paid an unprecedented visit to Israel and the two states signed three agreements over the next year, dealing with security cooperation, combating terrorism, and (along with the U.S. government) agricultural projects in Central Asia. More high-level visits followed and in February 1996 Israel established its first-ever formal military link to a predominantly Muslim country when it signed a military training agreement permitting Israeli air force jets to fly in Turkish air space. In March, the two sides initialed a free trade accord. In all, they signed thirteen accords.
But then, in July 1996, a seemingly fatal blow hit this burgeoning relationship: Necmettin Erbakan, a fundamentalist Muslim who sees Israel roughly as do the leaders in Iran, became Turkey's prime minister. Erbakan talks of Israel as a "timeless enemy" and "a cancer in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world." For him, Israel seeks to undermine the Islamic faith and annihilate the Muslims. He warns of a "Greater Israel" extending from the Nile to the Euphrates and blames a "Zionist conspiracy" for Turkey's economic problems. Erbakan despises Turkish links to Israel and has spoken often about ending them. As Erbakan took office news commentaries predicted that he would abrogate Turkey's recent agreements with Israel. And were Turkey like other Middle Eastern states, he would no doubt have fulfilled his public promises. Who, after all, would stand up for ties to the Jewish state against a determined assault by the prime minister?
But Turkey is different. The secularist legacy of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, is perhaps its most distinctive element. Atatürk's thinking owed much to the training he received as an army officer. As he rose through the ranks a century ago, the officer corps stood for secularism and readiness to learn from the West; Atatürk developed and codified this outlook, then extended it to the country as a whole. Thanks to the force of his will and the prestige he enjoyed as the victorious commander-in-chief who pulled Turkey together after the First World War, he managed in a brief fifteen-year period (1923-38) to empower a body of modernizing ideas that still has no counterpart elsewhere in the Muslim world. He changed not only many outward Turkish customs, but even the inner mentality. World history has witnessed few such transformations, especially ones carried out by a single individual. To an outside observer, this Turkish malleability has a mysterious quality. "There is no nation as open to change as we," former prime minister Tansu Çiller correctly observes.
Turkey as a whole retreated from much of Atatürk's legacy in the subsequent six decades, but one institution did not: the corps of 35,000 military officers sustains it as a sacred trust. In an impressive continuity of corporate culture, the top brass has succeeded -- through rigorous ideological training and by immediately expelling anyone suspected of disagreement with Atatürk's views -- in perpetuating an outlook much at variance from that which prevails in the country at large. Hence it was not particularly surprising that when Erbakan and his Refah (Welfare) Party came to office in July 1996, the Turkish military chose to make Israel one of the most central issues in its broad disagreement with the fundamentalists. It insisted not only on maintaining but even increasing ties to Israel.
In part, both sides see the Jewish state as a symbol; for them, as for Milan Kundera, it is the "heart of Europe." But Israel also relates to practical differences, such as how to deal with Turkey's most pressing domestic problem, an insurgency led by the Worker's Party of Kurdistan (PKK) and supported by neighboring governments. Erbakan would handle the PKK crisis by appeasing the group's sponsors in Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran. The military would combat the PKK and put pressure on those sponsors, preferably in tandem with Israel.
The military got its way because the constitution gives it a political role, and because the realities of Turkish politics give it an effective veto over the policies of an elected government. Çevik Bir, the dynamic and articulate deputy chief of staff explains:
We are acting strictly in accordance with the Turkish Constitution. Article 2 of the Constitution declares that we are a secular country, and Article 4 says that this provision can never be changed. Parliament has given us the responsibility to protect the Turkish mainland and also the Turkish Republic. In the United States or Britain it is not the job of the military to defend the political system, but in Turkey this is a mission given to us by law. We are not dealing with political issues, only carrying out our constitutional responsibility.
Having overthrown governments three times (in 1960, 1971, and 1980), the military has retained a credible option to do so again, or at least to exert real pressure on politicians. The generals make their views known through the National Security Council (MGK), a body that formally only advises elected Turkish officials but which prime ministers defy at their peril. The MGK includes the top five military officers, all secularists, and five civilian officials. Of the latter, four are secularists, which left Erbakan as the only fundamentalist on the MGK, and so quite powerless to affect its decisions. Proof resides in Erbakan's forced resignation on June 18, an event widely described inside Turkey and out as a "soft" or "postmodern" coup.
Thanks in part to the Turkish military role in politics, military ties stand at the heart of the new Turkish-Israeli relationship. These ties have expanded noticeably since the Sincan episode. The Turkish army's Chief of Staff Ismail Hakki Karadayi then traveled to Israel in late February 1997, marking the first trip there by a senior Turkish military officer. Karadayi praised the two states' close relations in recent years and commended face-to-face meetings as the best way for further progress to be made. He got his wish. The to-ing and fro-ing began in earnest when Israel's Foreign Minister David Levy visited Ankara on 8-9 April. Turkey's Defense Minister Turhan Tayan then visited Israel and Çevik Bir visited Israel on 4-6 May. In October, Israel's Chief of the General Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak visited Turkey. In each case, sizeable entourages accompanied these figures, so that during the early part of 1997 nearly all ranking flag officers of both militaries met each other. At a lower level, a semiannual strategic dialogue is now in place and in June Turkish naval vessels began visiting Israeli ports. The full results of these intense and high-profile exchanges obviously are not public, but formal announcements and talkative aides indicate they include five areas:
Weaponry upgrade. In the largest-scale defense industry deal, worth $632.5 million, Israeli Aircraft Industries is modernizing fifty-four of Turkey's Phantom F-4E aircraft, a Vietnam War-era fighter-bomber. The "Phantom 2000" will have enhanced firepower and maneuverability, better vision and electronics. To clinch the deal Israel granted Turkey a line of credit nearly equal to the entire cost of the modernization. Israel also seeks to upgrade Turkey's aging U.S.-made M-60 tanks.
Hardware purchase. Some weapons (such as Popeye I missiles) both come along with the Phantom improvements and are purchased separately. In addition, Turkey has expressed interest in the Arrow missile defense (partially funded by the United States and still under development), Falcon early-warning aircraft systems, a radar system for detecting plastic and conventional mines, and fences and radars to seal off the Turkish borders with Syria and Iraq (to prevent PKK infiltration). Israel hopes to supply Turkey with one thousand Merkava Mark IIIs, its main battle tank, at a cost of about $5 billion. Other reports tell of Turkish interest in Galil infantry rifles, naval patrol aircraft, unmanned air vehicles, and early warning aircraft. In the words of a Turkish analyst, "Basically, the Turkish military is interested in anything Israel has."
Joint production. The two sides have agreed to invest $150 million to produce hundreds of Popeye II missiles and are talking about project to produce Delilah long-range missiles.
Training. Turkish F-16 pilots and crews learn about electronic warfare in Israel, while Israeli pilots have access to the immense reaches of Anatolia to practice long-range flying over mountainous land (which is very different from flying over water and also serves as a potential preparation for possible missions against Iran). Eight times a year pilots spend time in the other country. The two sides held joint naval and air maneuvers in the Mediterranean Sea in June 1997, with the ostensible purpose of coordinating search and rescue procedures. Not surprisingly, these took place in the international waters close to the Syrian coast. In a particularly dramatic step, Ankara and Jerusalem announced plans for three-way naval exercises with the United States lasting five days, dubbed Reliant Mermaid, and originally scheduled to take place in mid-November 1997. The prospect of these exercises so shook other states of the region that they ended being twice postponed, though who did so in each case and why was not exactly clear.
Intelligence sharing. According to a Turkish newspaper report (denied by Turkey's defense minister), when East Germany went out of business, its Soviet-made weaponry passed to the Federal Republic of Germany, which made three MiG-29s fighter aircraft available to Israel; and Israel shared technical information about this, the most advanced war plane owned by Syria, with the Turks. It is also widely believed that the Israelis take advantage of their flying in Anatolia, close to Syria, Iraq, and Iran, to gather information about those hostile states.
As well as the extensive military aspect, the Turkish-Israeli relationship has other dimensions, though none as dynamic or elaborate.
Trade. The Turco-Israeli Free Trade Area Accord was signed in March 1996, resoundingly ratified by both parliaments, and became effective as of May 1997. It is expected to foster a four-fold increase in annual trade in just three years, from $450 million to $2 billion. The accord also has possible side-benefits for Turkey: Israel has free trade ties to the United States (and through it to Canada and Mexico), so this might open doors to Turkey in North America.
Transportation. The two sides were said also to have signed a land transportation agreement that will come into effect only after relations in the region had been "normalized" -- that is, when Syria, the land-bridge between them, had changed enough to allow trade across its territory. Even without a land passage, there is no lack of transportation between the two countries; last year, some 400,000 Israelis (fully 8 percent of the total population) visited Turkey, where they left behind nearly $3 billion. (Equally impressive, Turkish Airlines is the second largest carrier in and out of Tel Aviv, following only Israel's El Al.)
Water. Turkish proposals for a "peace pipeline" and Israeli ideas for a "peace canal" have centered on moving fresh water from Turkey to Israel. None of these plans have come to fruition, however, in large part because the Syrian authorities refuse to let such water transverse its territory. Other means of transporting water, though very expensive, are still under discussion.
Religion. The first-ever visit of a Turkish religious delegation to Israel in April 1997, the mufti of Istanbul declared that "there can be no Moslem religious objection to the existence of the State of Israel" -- not exactly standard fare from muftis.
Other agreements concern everything from figuring out the flight paths of migrating birds (to keep then from flying into jets) to agricultural cooperation to controlling the trade in kidneys purchased by about fifty Israelis a year in Turkey.
The two governments seem unsure just how to portray this growing cooperation. Sometimes they stress its peaceable content and at other times they flash its sharp edge. Describing joint naval exercises, Bir of the Turkish general staff stressed only their "humanitarian nature," adding that they "will include search and rescue training." In contrast, the Israeli defense minister announced that "With Turkey, we want real strategic cooperation. . . . Together, and with the support of the U.S., we will demonstrate how a strong combined power can deter against any threat in the region." Turkish and Israeli leaders also contradict themselves on the subject of Syria. Sometimes they insist their cooperation is not directed against any third party, but other times they drop their guard, as when a Turkish diplomat draws a direct connection between the Syrian export of terrorism and the threat of signing yet more agreements with Israel.
Why the Change?
As far as the basic Israeli motive is concerned, there has been no essential danger: since David Ben-Gurion's time, Jerusalem has always sought better relations with Turkey as a wedge to break out of the hostile ring of Arabic-speaking neighbors. But why do Turks, bucking a tide sweeping the entire Muslim world, seek such a tight bond with Israel? Here, the reply divides into two parts -- general disposition and practical needs.
In the first category, Turks remember past ties to Jews more favorably than do Arabs. The Turkish minister of defense has declared, for example, "We have had no problems with Israel and the Jewish nation throughout history," something he would not say about Arabs. Most famously, many Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 found refuge in Ottoman lands, and this remains a vivid memory, lavishly celebrated on its 500th anniversary in 1992 and featured prominently in dinner speeches this year when the Turkish chief of staff visited Jerusalem. Turkey and Israel also share what the analyst Alan Makovsky calls "a common sense of otherness" from the non-democratic and Arab regimes that dominate their region. As well, the Turkish military and the state of Israel share a unique political premise, being the region's only powerful, anti-fundamentalist institutions.
In contrast, Turks have a century's worth of poor relations with Arabs. They resent the fact that Arabs refuse to support their position in Cyprus and find Arabs generally unreliable as economic partners. For their part, Arabs frequently blame the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the Middle East through four centuries, for their current plight. Exemplifying this attitude, Saddam Husayn declares that "Whenever non-Arabs assumed leading and advisory roles, as happened during the Ottoman era, Islam faced bitter defeats" -- enormously irritating the Turks. They lodge official protests when a television series contains anti-Turkish scenes and hold high-level academic conferences on the portrayal of Turks in Arab textbooks. When an Arab government withdraws such materials, the president of Turkey himself expresses satisfaction. For example, after a visit to Amman, Süleyman Demirel proudly announced that "We removed articles opposing the Ottomans and Turkey from school textbooks in Jordan." The two sides still cherish crude stereotypes about the other. Turks tend to look down on Arabs as backward and emotional; Arabs return the favor by viewing Turks as rude and dour. Turks tend to dismiss Arabs as too Islamic; Arabs criticize Atatürk's experiment with secularism as a craven attempt to copy the West.
Turkey also has unresolved territorial problems with its two Arab neighbors, both of them long-standing enemies of Israel. In the case of Iraq, Ankara has not entirely given up on its old claims to the Mosul area. In May 1995 Demirel brought these claims to life again when he announced that "the border is wrong," and called this "a matter that has to be rectified." But the major problem is with Syria, whose government persistently claims an entire Turkish province, Hatay, as its own. Official Syrian maps show Hatay as part of Syria, while nightly weather reports on television treat it as just another province of Syria. Troubles with Syria go far beyond land disputes. Damascus claims rights to large flows of Euphrates River waters and has strenuously objected to Turkish waterworks that reduce its take. The regime in Syria seeks to destabilize the Turkish government by supporting a wide range of radical movements, and most especially the PKK, a violent Marxist group whose insurgency has cost over twenty thousand lives in thirteen years.
Turkey shares other interests with Israel. Greek Cyprus represents a standing problem for Ankara; its recent welcome for various Palestinian groups has made it also a concern for Jerusalem. As for Iran, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 its regime has sought simultaneously to destroy Israel and to create an Islamic Republic of Turkey. Bordering on three rogue states, Turkey gains strength working with Israel. Should Hafiz al-Asad of Syria, for example, initiate hostilities against Turkey to his north, he would also have to worry about Israel to his south. Turks already see benefits vis-à-vis Greece; as one newspaper analysis put it, the tie to Israel " has rendered ineffective several of the trump cards the Athens government has tried to use against Ankara." For Israel too, the new tie has many advantages in time of war even without direct Turkish participation. As Michael Eisenstadt explains:
the Turkish army could mass its forces along its borders with Syria. This could tie down Syria's strategic reserve. . . . Turkey could allow damaged Israeli aircraft to land at Turkish air bases and . . . pass on data derived from reconnaissance flights. . . . This could compel Syria to reorganize its air defenses . . . [which] will mean thinning coverage of the center and southwest of the country. At sea, Turkey could allow Israel to operate out of its naval base at Iskenderun or sanctuaries in Turkish waters near Syria, forcing Syria to split its fleet.
This sort of assistance, Eisenstadt concludes, would help Turkey punish Syria, "a troublesome neighbor," and "gain the good will of Israel political and military leaders, without incurring major risks." Summing up, a Turkish analyst holds that the two states' aims "overlap but are not fully congruent. For Turkey, the agreement is mainly about Syria and the PKK; for Israel, it is more about air-space and Iran." But the ensemble of interests, taken together, works well.
The new Israeli-Turkish partnership is a great fit internationally as well. Foiled by human rights groups in Europe, and the Greek and Armenian lobbies in the United States, Turkey needs a reliable source of high-technology military equipment. The Israelis, always the odd man out in their region, are now not so much alone. As for the Turks, always relative strangers in Washington, they now have a well-connected ally, of whom they expect a great deal. In the words of a Turkish analyst, "many Turks believe that friendship with Israel means support from America." Already, they declare "It is up to the Israelis to talk to the [U.S. government]" to win them access to the Arrow anti-missile system. And Ankara relies not just on Israelis; to make its case, it also counts on American Jews such as Morton Abramowitz, Douglas Feith, Alan Makovsky, Richard Perle, and Harold Rhode, and on institutions such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. It also looks to leading Jewish scholars of Turkey (Avigdor Levy, Bernard Lewis, Stanford Shaw) to soften its rough reputation. "We love American Jews," a Foreign Ministry official once told me, summing up a widespread sentiment.
For Turkey, never quite accepted as Western, the new tie distinguishes it from all other Muslim countries. For Israel, never quite accepted as Middle Eastern, the tie breaches a wall of rejection and it may even provide a model for links to other Muslim states.
And yet, while visiting dignitaries like to emphasize that Turkey and Israel are "the only democracies in the region," their bond is hardly a model of democratic choice. Some Israelis note that the Turkish military, not the elected government, has insisted on the plethora of agreements with Israel, causing concern about their fragility. Turks reply by emphasizing that Erbakan won only one-fifth of the popular vote in the 1995 elections and go out of their way to assure Israel that its secrets are safe with them. "Turkey will not share your military information with others," Karadayi told the Israelis, "nor will we pass your military technology to other nations." Addressing the Israeli fear that an anti-Israel government might cancel the accords, President Demirel insisted that "Turkish-Israeli military cooperation, as with cooperation in all other areas, will continue in the future without interruption."
Turkish and Israeli analysts fully appreciate the momentous potential of the new bond. "This budding alliance has altered the strategic power balance in the oil-rich Mideast," writes the eminent Turkish journalist Sami Kohen. Sabri Sayari, a political analyst, calls it the Middle East's "most important military relationship." Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defense minister, deems it "a major change in the geopolitics of the Middle East." The usually glum Jerusalem Post brightly sees in it possible vindication for Shimon Peres' unbounded optimism: "[T]here is some truth to the thesis that a new Middle East can emerge."
Most Westerners roundly applaud these developments. The New York Times finds it "the most powerful military friendship in the Middle East." Defense News describes it as "a brilliant joint move" that "elevates Turkish and Israeli security to practically an unassailable level." To its credit, the Clinton administration has solidly backed its only two real allies in the Middle East as they form this partnership. In an unusually blunt statement, a State Department official said that "it has been a strategic objective of the United States that Turkey and Israel ought to enhance their military cooperation and their political relations. . . . If certain other Arab countries don't like that, that's just tough." He also portrayed their rapprochement as "significant" and endorsed it as "helpful to both countries and to the United States."
But, the blossoming of Turkish-Israeli relations has caused their many regional adversaries much heartache. Complaints have poured in from the governments of Greece, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, as well as the Palestinian Authority. One statement after another pointed to Turkey, a Muslim country of 66 million, as being subjugated to a Zionist or imperialist conspiracy. The complaints have also revealed what each party most fears. Syria's Foreign Minister Faruq ash-Shar'a accused Turkey and Israel of forming a "military alliance." The Libyan news agency worried about a "suspicious military alliance" that would steal the Arabs' "petroleum riches and water resources." The Iranians specifically worried about Israelis now being able to target their nuclear facilities. Fundamentalist Muslims saw it directed against all those Muslim states to which the label "rogue" is attached in the United States. "It's dangerous because the Jews want to extend their reach to other Muslim nations like Iraq, Iran, and Syria," says Mustafa Mashur, the head of Egypt's Muslim Brethren. The PKK derisively compared the Turkish chief of staff to "an Israeli civil servant" and even to "a child." Of course, some Turks echoed these complaints, but the authorities rebuffed them all as infantile.
If it continues on its present trajectory, the Turkish-Israeli tie could well alter the strategic map of the Middle East. But is it more likely to stabilize or to disrupt the region?
Initially, it could lead to more problems. Symbolic of the violence to come, Palestinians threw a Molotov cocktail into the front yard of the Turkish consulate in eastern Jerusalem in early May, then poured inflammable liquid on the consul general's car. Egypt's foreign minister has threatened the formation of a military counter-alliance. News reports indicate that Asad's son, Bashshar, met with the Hizbullah leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and "the two men decided to attack Turkish targets." The recent opening of the Syrian-Iraq border after seventeen years of closure results directly from the two old Ba'thist lions, Asad and Saddam Husayn, recognizing that they face a common, threatening opponent.
In the longer term, however, strong Turkish-Israeli ties will enhance the region's stability by serving as a powerful military deterrent against would-be enemies. Aggressive states must watch their step in the face of a formidable combination of the Middle East's largest military force and its most advanced, and this diminishes the likelihood of war. It may already be working: An Arab newspaper reports that Damascus has decided against a strategic alliance with Iran, fearing that this might "lead to increased coordination between Ankara and Tel Aviv against Damascus" and to its further isolation.
The Turkish-Israeli partnership offers many advantages to the United States. Most ambitiously, it could provide the nucleus of an American-oriented regional partnership made up of democratic allies -- as opposed to the authoritarian rulers upon which Washington has relied for five decades. Eisenhower's Baghdad Pact, Nixon's "twin pillars," and Reagan's "strategic consensus" depended mostly on dubious monarchs (Iraq's weak Hashemites, Iran's bombastic shah, the egregious Saudis) and ugly authoritarians (such as the Mubarak regime in Egypt today). But the Turkish-Israeli alignment creates, for the first time, the possibility of developing an alliance of pro-American democracies, such as exists in Europe. If cultivated carefully, Jordan might join in, with more states (perhaps Kuwait) adhering later. The final result could be that most elusive of all goals: a more peaceable Middle East.