Javascript Menu by Ariel Center for Policy Research

Ariel Center for Policy Research (ACPR)

ACPR Research


Turkey and Israel: An Evolving Partnership

Meltem Müftüler Bac
Policy Paper No. 47, 1998


The end of the Cold War has led to a global restructuring, which has had a real impact on the Middle East. This paper suggests that in the post-Cold War era, Turkey and Israel have engaged in extensive cooperative ties, which are stimulated by the uncertain environment and the precarious security circumstances surrounding them. Turkey has relatively more abundant water resources when compared to other countries in the region and water enables Turkey to fulfill its aspirations as an emerging regional power. This paper analyzes these new co-operation patterns, the strategic alliance between Turkey and Israel, and the politics of water in this strategic alliance.

Turkey's Rapprochement with Israel

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey has responded to global and regional changes by reformulating its foreign policy. Faced with uncertainty regarding its borders and its identity, Turkey has forged new alliances, one of which includes the Turkish-Israeli axis. Water is becoming an essential component of political power in the Middle East. Turkey is one of the few states in the Middle East which enjoys abundant ground-water resources. Since natural resources are an important element of a country's power in its dealings with other states, Turkey's water resources give it power vis-a-vis other countries in the region. Turkey, by providing cheap water on a reliable basis, may be able to decrease the tension in the region surrounding the allocation of this scarce resource in the region.

Suleyman Demirel, Turkish President since June 1993, has summarized the motives behind the Turkish-Israeli axis as follows: "Turkey and Israel have decided on a regional co-operation for increasing the economic welfare of the region and curbing terrorism".

Turkey's Motivations

This paper proposes that the Turkish rapprochement with Israel is a result of the interplay of a number of factors: the end of the Cold War, the 1990-91 Gulf War, Turkey's Kurdish problem, and the Israeli-Arab peace process. Turkey has always toyed with the idea of closer ties with Israel and there was always a political will to associate with Israel, yet the favorable environment for this endeavour emerged only in the 1990s. From 1945 to 1989, Turkey held an integral position within the Western security systems because of its role as a buffer state against the Soviet Union. This position enabled acceptance of Turkey as part of the European system of states. On the other hand, Turkey is isolated in the Arab Middle East because of its imperial past, i.e., the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, and because of its perceived break with Islam, i.e., the secular form of government in Turkey since 1924. It moved further away from its Muslim, Arab neighbors during the Cold War era and allied itself with the West, the United States in particular. Since 1989, Turkey's reluctantly acknowledged incorporation into the West has been challenged.

In the post-Cold War era, Turkey finds itself in a turbulent security environment marked by volatility and instability. Such regional destabilizers as Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Iran have alerted Turkey to the dangers of isolation in the region. The possibility of isolation and marginality within the global and regional security order presses Turkey to find new allies; Israel is the most likely candidate. Thus, the first factor that triggered Turkey's rapprochement with Israel was this awareness of its increased seclusion in the post-Cold War era. The second factor, the Gulf War, confirmed that the Middle East region continues to be a major source of instability with the potential to threaten global security. It demonstrated that Turkey is still important for Western security despite the fact that its role as a buffer against the Soviet Union has ended. It accentuated the similarities between Turkey and Israel, two states which are not Arab yet exist in a predominantly Arab region in which neither is welcome and both susceptible to common dangers.

The second factor that enables Turkey to pursue a pro-Israeli foreign policy more freely is the evolving Arab-Israeli peace process, though stagnant right now. Turkey recognized Israel in 1949, the first Muslim state to do so, but until the 1990s, the Turkish government was reluctant to move towards closer cooperation with Israel because of the Arab countries' sensitivities. Lastly, the emerging alliance can be viewed placed in a broader framework with the USA as the power behind its formation.

The emerging Turkish-Israeli alliance has the capacity to serve the Americans’ interests in the Middle East for a number of reasons. First, the Middle East ranks very high on the American foreign policy agenda due to its economic and strategic importance. Second, the demise of the Soviet Union has increased the strategic importance of the Middle East by shifting the American administration's attention to the well-armed rogue states that represent the new threats to Western security. The Turkish-Israeli alliance might act as a counterbalance against these rogue states as part of the American ‘dual containment policy’. The United States needs regional allies to take upon themselves such tasks as regional crisis management and peace-keeping, which would then leave the US free to focus on problems of larger magnitude.

Turkey's Security Interests

Turkey is surrounded by hostile, "rogue" states against which it is caught in a struggle for power and influence for regional mastery. It has serious conflicts of interest with these states, the most visible ones concerning Kurdish separatist terrorism, the distribution of water, and Islamic fundamentalism. The question of support given to Kurdish separatist terrorism constitutes the core issue in the Turkish-Syrian relations. The Kurdish problem lies at the core of Turkish-Iraqi relations as well.

Further causes of dispute between Turkey and Syria include the question of Hatay province, the distribution of waters from the Euphrates, Tigris, and Asi rivers, and the 1995 Syria-Greece agreement granting Greece in which the Syrian government granted the use of its air bases to Greece. Disputes with for Iraq include the question of Northern Iraq, the protection of the Turkoman minority in Iraq, and the politics of water. The politics of water is a major source of conflict in the Middle East and one which has direct implications for the Kurdish problem. Turkey is faced with a conflict of interest with Syria and Iraq over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which originate in Turkish territory and then flow into Syria and Iraq, the downstream countries. The Syrian government perceives a trade-off between its support for the PKK and the politics of water.

As for Iran, Turkey is also suspicious of Iran’s designs over Turkey's internal affairs and its support for Islamic movements in Turkey. In addition, Turkey and Iran compete for influence in the former Soviet Union's Central Asian republics and in the transport of oil and natural gas. Such countries are regarded as heavily armed regional destabilisers by both Turkey and Israel. In short, Turkey has serious conflicts of interests with its neighbors Syria, Iraq, and Iran over the Kurdish problem, the politics of water, the role of Islam, and the ir respective political influences in the region.

Israel faces threats to its security from the same countries in the region which threaten Turkey's national security. Iran finds in Israel its arch-enemy and has now acquired missile technology and nuclear capabilities with Russian help. Iraq, during the Gulf War, opened a second front by sending its Scud missiles into Israeli territory. To top it all, Syria threatens Israel's territorial integrity and the peace process. The Israeli-Syrian conflict revolves around such issues as the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and Southern Lebanon, and the Syrian support of Hamas and Hizbullah terrorists opposed to Israel. In the uncertain, volatile post-Cold War environment of the Middle East, faced with hostility from Iran and the Arab states sworn to its destruction, Israel requires a reliable partner and the most likely candidate is Turkey. There is, then, a convergence of interests between Turkey and Israel for deterring Syria, Iran, and Iraq for similar security reasons.

Turkey and Israel do not only share security concerns, but there are other similarities between them that makes their cooperation likely. Turkey and Israel are the only secular democracies in the region, both have market economies, and both are integrated into the European economic order. Their major export and import partners indicate an integration with the states of the Western states.

Turkey shares a vested interest with Israel in promoting stability in the highly volatile region in which it is located; they are also the only two countries in the region with the capacity to do so. Furthermore, they are also similar in the problems they face: religious fundamentalist movements, economic difficulties, hostile behavior from their neighbors, and separatist movements that threaten their territorial integrity. Turkey and Israel are among the strongest military powers in the region, in terms of capabilities, military expenditures, standing army, and weapons technology. Turkey had the second largest army in NATO (prior to the German reunification) and Israel has superior military technology from which Turkey would undoubtedly benefit. In addition, Israel has strong, sound American backing and the Jewish lobby in Washington has the freedom to try to harness power to influence American foreign policy. The indirect benefits of a pro-Israeli policy for Turkey may be a change in the attitudes of the American Congress, which has not been very friendly towards Turkey.

An alliance with Israel has the capacity to counterbalance the threats to Turkey's national security and to shift the power equation to Turkey's advantage. For Turkish strategic interests, the "friendship" with Israel would help strengthen Turkey's position in the Middle East, curb terrorism, and deter such hostile states from destabilizing Turkey. A long-term benefit would be to increase Turkey's perceived power in the region by expanding Turkey's military capabilities through the transfer of Israeli military technology and sale of weapons. Thus, pushed out and threatened by the Arab states, and not fully accepted in the Western camp, Turkey's rapprochement with Israel, the only country in the region perceived to be “like Turkey”, is understandable.

There is, however, one obstacle to cooperation between Turkey and Israel: Turkey's internal politics. Turkey's position towards Israel reflects the internal dynamics and divisions in Turkish society. The fundamentalist religious groups oppose Turkey's ties with Israel, condemning Israel as a hostile enemy power which has occupied the Holy Places. In contrast, the secular military and bureaucratic elite favor ties with Israel in the post-Cold War era as a rational and realistic foreign policy decision. Relations with Israel, therefore, are a good barometer in measuring both Turkey's new stance in the Middle East as well as the relative power of Turkish domestic groups.

The Formation of the Turkish-Israeli Axis

An analysis of developments that have unfolded since 1991 sheds some light on what kind of a strategic alliance that is emerging between Turkey and Israel. Even though mostly the military aspects of the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement are most often discussed, its economic dimensions are also of importance. The economic aspects of the Turkish-Israeli alliance seem to prosper quietly as a result of the vested economic interests of both sides. A range of agreements and the official state level visits point to the evolution of a Turkish-Israeli axis in the Middle East. Turkey also became one of the most popular destinations for Israeli tourists.

A range of military pacts was put into operation in 1997. The agenda of the meetings were not made totally public, but they probably also included agreements on intelligence sharing, joint naval operations, regional balance of power concerns, and mutual threats to security. It may even be that the role of Israel in the sale of weapons serves to indicate that the American administration does not object to an influx of such weapons to Turkey, and that this may be a device developed to circumvent the Congress.

Thus, the expansion of ties between Turkey and Israel on a number of levels seems to answer the question, whether Turkey and Israel are moving towards a strategic cooperation scheme, in an affirmative manner.

Turkey, Israel, and the Regional Destabilizers

The Turkish-Israeli alliance is condemned by all the Arab states which see the alliance as a direct threat to their own national securities. But the Turkish and Israeli officials emphasize that the alliance is not directed against any particular state. In the words of David Ivri, the adviser to the Israeli Defense Minister, "the security pact signed is not aimed at any state, but it seeks to build confidence in the Middle East and to contribute to peace and stability in the region". Yet, despite all the statements confirming from the Turkish government that the military pact is not directed against any state, the Turkish-Israeli alliance seems to be a clever move against Syria. Seen in such terms, the alliance is an encirclement of Syria and a challenge to Damascus which Syria is quick to realize. Syrian government officials have declared that the alliance is “an act of aggression against the Arabs and an act of hostility to pan-Arab existence”. Assad claims that the Turkish-Israeli axis aims at the destruction of the Arab world and what is happening to Iraq is an example. He even claims that the axis aims at evacuating northern Iraq and settling the Palestinians there.

Assad may be wary of the consequences of the Turkish-Israeli axis for two reasons: first, increased Turkish power in the region will prevent the resolution of the water conflict to Syria's advantage, and second, increased Israeli power may erode Syria's power to block effectively the peace process. Faced with the combined power of Turkey and Israel, Syria may have a harder time promoting its own interests in the region. Such possibilities push Syria to devise strategies to counter the Turkish-Israeli alliance. In response to the Turkish-Israeli axis, there seems to be a rapprochement between Syria and Iran. Although the Iranian government denies that a Syrian-Iranian axis is forming in response to the Turkish-Israeli military pacts, it may very well have been triggered by the Turkish-Israeli axis. On the other hand, Iran's acquisition of nuclear technology from Russia shows the timeliness of the Turkish-Israeli alliance.

Russian involvement in Iran's quest for missile technology, if true, violates the “Missile Technology Control Regime”. Russian motives for such involvement may include an attempt to regain a foothold in the Middle East through Iran. In response to the rumors of Russian involvement, the Israeli government has suspended a natural gas deal with the Russians. Even though there were always some reports that the Iranians were developing nuclear weapons and missile technology, it is only recently that the issue has received attention from the USA. Furthermore, the missile issue indicates that the Middle East is still a battleground in the struggle for power between the USA and Russia.

In terms of American interests in the region, the Turkish-Israeli strategic realignment should rank high on the American foreign policy agenda. Both of these countries are pro-American and their alliance would promote America’s dual containment policy against rogue regimes such as Iran, Iraq, and Syria, all of which are engaged in military build-ups, especially with weapons of mass destruction, and which pose a major threat to American interests. The military build-up in these regimes partly explains the American push for the alliance as a strong barrier against these rogue states. Given the strategic importance of the Middle East and the desire for an uninterrupted flow of oil, the Turkish-Israeli alliance with its stabilizing and balancing capabilities might be the blessing the United States has been looking for in its post-Cold War Middle Eastern foreign policy.

To sum up, Turkish-Israeli security cooperation seems to be the dominant event of post-Cold War Middle Eastern politics. Turkish concerns over the threats that Syria, Iran, and Iraq pose to Turkish national unity and territorial integrity are the factors that led to Turkish rapprochement with Israel. The end of the Cold War, the Gulf War and its impact on Turkey's Kurdish problem, and the Israel-Arab peace process prepared the fertile ground for Turkey openly to follow a pro-Israeli foreign policy. The alliance serves a number of Turkish security interests.

Water acts as another policy tool for Turkish-Israeli rapprochement by creating a common interest between the two parties.

The Turkish-Israeli axis indicates an evolving polarization in the Middle East. One pole consists of the Turkish-Israeli alliance backed by American power, and the other pole is the Iranian-Syrian axis which seems to be supported by the Russians. Such regional polarization coupled with high levels of militarization is not a good sign. What may have begun on Turkey's behalf as an initiative to find a reliable ally may degenerate into an ugly conflict. Thus, whether the alliance will ultimately help to preserve stability in the region remains to be seen.

For the complete text of this article, click here.