Starting on Jan. 5 and lasting for four days, some exceedingly minor joint military maneuvers will take place in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Two ships from each of Turkey and Israel, plus one from the United States, along with several helicopters and aircraft will, in the words of an official explanation, "try to search and rescue the survivors following the S.O.S. signals of a sinking fishing boat in the international waters of Mediterranean."
The goal of this effort is as modest as its materiel. "By familiarizing themselves with each other's capabilities and working together," an American statement explains, "elements of the three naval forces which regularly operate in the Mediterranean will be able to respond more effectively."
Despite its miniscule size and innocuous purpose, this exercise has aroused enormous hostility in governments from southeast Europe to southeast Asia. Laboring under the weight of conspiracy theories, they see military cooperation between these three states as the precursor to an all-out assault against themselves. A state-run Syrian newspaper, for example, insists the real purpose of the exercise is "to spy by satellite on neighboring countries."
While that's plain silly, the joint exercises do in fact mark the coming of age of a Turkish-Israeli bond that, assuming it continues to strengthen, has the potential to alter the strategic map of the Middle East, to reshape Western alliances there, and even to end Israel's strategic isolation.
Relations between Turkey and Israel go back to March 1949, but only took off with Oslo process that began in the summer of 1993. In response, Ankara signed some thirteen lesser accords with Israel over the next three years. 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.
Were Turkey like other Middle Eastern states, Erbakan would no doubt have fulfilled his public promises to abrogate Turkey's agreements with Israel. But Turkey is different. The secularist legacy of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, is perhaps its most distinctive element, as is the keeper of Atatürk's secularist flame, the military officer corps.
When Erbakan came to office in July 1996, the Turkish military chose to make Israel one of the most central issues of its difference with the fundamentalists. That it would prevail in expanding ties to Israel became evident just weeks after Erbakan came to office, when military contacts resumed and even increased. The results of the many intense and high-profile exchanges are not public, but formal announcements and talkative aides indicate they include the upgrade of existing weaponry (including one deal worth $632.5 million), the purchase of hardware, joint production of weapons, the training of staff, and intelligencesharing. In addition, Turkish-Israeli ties have other dimensions, including trade, water, and religion.
After all these decades what explains this sudden blossoming of relations? The Israeli side did not change: 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? The answer has much to do with a long and friendly history (most famously, the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 found refuge in Ottoman lands) as well as common interests between Turkey and Israel today.
Ankara has unresolved territorial problems with Iraq and Syria, both of which are longstanding enemies of Israel. Turkey gains strength against them by working with Israel. Should Hafiz al-Asad of Syria, for example, initiate hostilities with Turkey he now must also worry about Israel at the other end of his country. As for Iran, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the regime seeks simultaneously to destroy Israel and to create an Islamic Republic of Turkey. With Saddam Husayn, you can use any leverage available.
Turkey and Israel make 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; to sustain its military industry, Israel depends on foreign markets for these very products. The Turks, always strangers in Washington, now have a well-connected ally. Israelis, always the odd man out in their region, are not so alone. For Turkey, never quite accepted as Western, ties to Israel differentiates it from all other Muslim countries. For Israel, never quite accepted as a Middle Eastern country, it breaches the wall of rejection; ties to Turkey might provide a model for Israel's future links to other Muslim states.
Turkish and Israeli analysts fully appreciate the momentous quality 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. Moshe Arens, the former Israeli defense minister, deems it "a major change in the geopolitics of the Middle East."
It wins wide approval in the United States. The Clinton administration, according to a State Department spokesman, believes their cooperation "is a building block for peace, and it's not in any way an element of increased tension or hostility."Defense News describes it as "a brilliant joint move" that "elevates Turkish and Israeli security to practically an unassailable level."
Neighbors show less approval. "We are not happy with such an alliance," intones the Egyptian foreign minister. His Greek counterpart warns that an alliance between the two countries "would meet with our stiff opposition." So intensely critical of Turkey's military ties to Israel were the assembled Muslim leaders at a summit meeting in Tehran last month that the Turkish president took the sensational step of walking out on his fellow leaders.
The blossoming of relations between Turkey and Israel is perhaps the one piece of good news coming out of the Middle East these days. If they continue to grow, they could well alter the strategic map of the Middle East. Aggressive states must watch their step in the face of the Middle East's largest military force and its most advanced, and this diminishes the likelihood of war.
The Turkish-Israeli could also provide the nucleus of an Western-oriented regional partnership made up of democratic allies-as opposed to the authoritarian rulers that Washington has for five decades relied upon. Eisenhower's Baghdad Pact, Nixon's "twin pillars," and Reagan's "strategic consensus" depended mostly on dubious monarchs and ugly authoritarians. But the Turkish-Israeli alignment creates, for the first time, the possibility of developing an alliance of pro-Western democracies. 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.