Kilic Bugra Kanat
Dr. Kanat is an assistant professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University, Erie.
In his studies on alliances, Stephen Walt provided a list of variables that can lead to the endurance or collapse of alliances in the international system. Walt's variables provide an almost accurate explanation of the persistence and demise of the Turkish-Israeli partnership in the 1990s. As Walt underscored, factors such as domestic politics and elite manipulation as well as a common threat perception and shared identities among the founders of the alliance played significant roles in the development and continuation of the partnership until the late 1990s. Later, however, changing threat perceptions and the transformation of domestic politics precipitated a gradual decline in the strategic partnership.1
Now, as Turkey and Israel have started to restore ties after a three-year diplomatic freeze, the main question arises regarding the feasibility of a 1990s-type partnership between Israel and Turkey. A comparison of the geopolitical situations on the ground demonstrates that Turkey and Israel do not share as many commonalities as they did in the 1990s. In addition, domestic politics in Turkey today has undergone drastic changes since the 1990s. Moreover, the regional transformation in the Middle East and the reorientation in U.S. policy towards Asia have created a new geopolitical reality. Under these changing circumstances, a renaissance in bilateral relations seems only possible as a result of a parallel revival of the peace process. Without this development, Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relations will remain vulnerable to the conflicts in the region and susceptible to the disapproval of public opinion in the Middle East.
During President Barack Obama's visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. After 30 minutes of conversation, monitored by Obama, Netanyahu agreed to apologize for the deaths of nine Turkish civilians during a 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza. Of the three demands made by Turkey following the crisis, an official apology was the most challenging for the Israeli government to accept. Following the Palmer report, Turkey had suspended diplomatic relations with Israel, which had been re-launched in 1992 after the Madrid peace process. On his Facebook page, Netanyahu wrote,
After three years of disconnect in Israel-Turkey relations, I decided it was time to rebuild them. The changing reality around us requires us to constantly re-examine our relationship with the countries in the region. In the past three years, the State of Israel has made several attempts to bring an end to the disconnect between us and Turkey.2
Later, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu revealed details of the two weeks of backdoor diplomacy that led to the reconciliation.3
The Obama administration had tried to broker an Israeli apology and the reconciliation of the two American allies since 2010. Now, after nearly a three-year freeze, Turkey and Israel are restoring diplomatic ties. Although Turkey has still not sent its ambassador to Israel, negotiations regarding compensation for the victims have begun between Turkish and Israeli officials.4 Premature optimism and high expectations about restoring the close ties of the 1990s may, however, lead to disappointment. The transformation of Turkish politics and foreign policy, coupled with the enormous changes in the Middle East over the last few years, make a security-oriented partnership almost impossible to achieve. Although different observers of Turkish-Israeli relations claim Syria to be a common denominator and external threat for both countries once again,5 the changing circumstances within and around Syria will make it less likely to be a common "other" for Israel and Turkey.
Moreover, statements by Prime Minister Erdoğan after the apology made it clear that under the current circumstances, the relationship would revert to its pre-Mavi Marmara and post-Operation Cast Lead status.6 This period, between December 2009 and May 2010, witnessed different sorts of diplomatic confrontation, including the crisis of "Davos"7 and the "Lower Chair" incident.8 Therefore, bilateral relations may continue to be vulnerable to similar crises. However, these two countries can reach a certain degree of partnership in the new Middle East if, in the absence of strong common "others," they can find a mutual goal. The recent political transformation in the region leaves room to maneuver for the development of this partnership only through a revived peace process. With the successful development of this process, Turkey and Israel can form a new and stable working relationship in the region, which may pave the way for economic integration of the neighboring countries and bilateral cooperation in other areas.
PARTNERSHIP IN THE 1990s
Although Turkey was one of the first Muslim countries to recognize the state of Israel, the relationship never reached a level of strategic cooperation until the 1990s. After the two formed a secret "peripheral alliance" during the 1950s, Turkey followed a more cautious approach in its relations with Israel.9 In 1980, Turkey downgraded diplomatic ties with Israel as a result of a crisis regarding the city of Jerusalem;10 and throughout the 1980s, Turkey showed no intention of repairing relations. It was only after the Madrid peace process that Turkey decided to reengage with Israel at the ambassadorial level. On the same day that Turkey elevated its representation in Israel, it also declared its decision to raise its diplomacy with the Palestinian Authority to an ambassadorial level as well. Following this decision, relations between Turkey and Israel developed very quickly, taking a military and strategic form.11
The Turkish-Israeli partnership in the 1990s was a marriage of convenience for both sides, sustained partly by the mutual perception of Syria as a security threat. There had been no peace agreement between Syria and Israel since the Arab-Israeli wars, and Lebanon's instability during the 1980s made the situation fragile. On the other side, although Turkey and Syria had not had a border dispute since the 1930s, some Syrian statements regarding the city of Hatay strained bilateral relations. Furthermore, the two countries were still unable to resolve tensions over a number of issues. In the 1970s, the Syrian-controlled territories of Lebanon became fertile ground for terrorist groups, including the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), which was pursuing a struggle against Turkey. Coupled with the logistical support that Syria was providing the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), water-sharing disputes over the Euphrates River in the 1980s became a major source of crisis for bilateral relations.
During the 1990s, partly in response to a Greek-Syrian cooperation agreement, Israel and Turkey found it convenient to expand the nature and scope of their own collaboration, which in its first years was primarily economic. Turkey's security establishment, seeking to modernize itself after the Gulf War and facing increasing PKK activity on its southern border, needed a supplier that was willing to sell weapons with no strings attached. The situation provided a perfect opportunity for the Israeli defense industry, which conveniently needed a market in which to sell their weapons. As the Turkish military became increasingly dominant in domestic politics, Turkey's relationship with Israel became more security-oriented. Although tourism and, more important, trade grew between the nations, their most significant and controversial areas of cooperation were in the military and intelligence realms.
Throughout the mid-1990s, Turkey and Israel signed various agreements focusing on security and the military. These included a September 1995 memorandum of understanding that entailed the training of Turkish pilots by the Israeli air force against anti-aircraft missile systems and Turkish permission for Israeli pilots to conduct maneuvers in Turkish air space; a February 1996 military cooperation agreement outlining plans to exchange personnel and conduct joint training exercises; and an August 1996 military-industrial cooperation agreement on military modernization and arms trade. In 1996, Israel and Turkey also aimed to extend this cooperation to a more strategic realm in order to create a common foreign and security policy. They also signed agreements to cooperate in counterterrorism and intelligence gathering and sharing. The contents of these agreements were mostly kept confidential and protected by a security and secrecy pact signed in May 1994. In January 1998, military cooperation spread to operations, with the first joint exercise in the Mediterranean, Operation Reliant Mermaid.12
The rapprochement between Turkey and Israel was intended to contain Syria, which had been an external "other" for both states. With the increasing irrelevance of NATO and the absence of a Cold War security umbrella, the partnership was considered a perfect solution to multiple security problems, particularly those involving increasing regional insecurity due to the militarization of some Middle Eastern countries. However, during the mid-1990s, for some segments of the Turkish security establishment, the partnership with Israel started to take on a new meaning. During these years of increasing influence of the military on Turkish politics, alignment with Israel began to be thought of as a way to deal with "domestic threats." For some, the partnership with Israel not only constituted a convenient alliance against an external "other"; it provided an anchor in the Western world and a forceful opposition to the "Islamist threat." In fact, some in the Turkish state establishment thought relations with Israel would guarantee secularism in Turkey and act as a source of legitimacy for military intervention in politics. Thus, any questioning of Turkish-Israeli relations was considered an attack on the secular nature of the Turkish Republic. The military's approach of identifying the partnership with Israel as a symbol of secularism, however, harmed Israel's image in Turkey. This attitude resulted in a huge public reaction against undemocratic practices during the events of February 28 and fostered skepticism towards Turkish-Israeli ties.13
Security and military cooperation between Turkey and Israel also led to the formation of trilateral relations among Turkey, Israel and the United States. In addition to cooperation in intelligence gathering, the three countries launched numerous security-cooperation programs, including military drills in the Mediterranean Sea (Reliant Mermaid, known in Turkey as Anatolian Eagle). Writing on the future of trilateral relations, former deputy Chief of Staff Çevik Bir stated,
The Middle East is fast on its way to becoming the principal generator of these threats. This opens new vistas for the Israeli-Turkish relationship, as a counterweight to the menace of radical forces. The entente began in a convergence of the interests of two countries. It could well develop as the pillar of a wider security architecture for the Middle East, encouraged by the United States and Europe, with the objective of keeping theocratic extremism and martial despotism in check.14
Alongside the lack of transparency in Turkish-Israeli relations, this emerging trilateral "entente" generated further skepticism in the Middle East regarding its nature and goals. In particular, the arrangement put Turkey in a difficult situation with its neighbors and started to isolate it in international forums. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) soon denounced the Turkish military and its security cooperation with Israel.15 The next year, the Arab League proclaimed that Turkey's alignment with Israel was aiming to redraw the map of the Middle East.16
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
By the late 1990s, Turkish-Israeli relations started to lose their impetus. In most instances, rather than direct confrontation, external factors, changes in regional politics, and transformations within Turkish domestic politics played more significant roles in the evolution of Turkish-Israeli relations.
Decades-long tension between Turkey and Syria led to a final showdown in October 1998 as a result of Ankara's ultimatum to Damascus to cease its logistical support for the PKK, which had brought the two countries to the brink of war.17 Through the Adana Declaration and the expulsion of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, however, Syria and Turkey transformed this crisis into an opportunity by forging the foundation of a close partnership through economic and political ties.18 This sudden geopolitical change eliminated the external "other" that was integral in the emergence of the Turkish-Israeli alignment. Later, under the Justice and Development Party (JDP) government, relations improved more rapidly. Turkey and Syria took steps to integrate their economies and eliminate the restrictions on the free flow of goods and services; they even launched strategic-dialogue meetings at the highest levels of government.
Moreover, Turkey resisted the pressure from the United States to isolate Syria in the post-9/11 period19 and undertook international projects like the "Iraq's Neighbors Initiative" for sustainable regional stability. Turkey also proved to be an honest broker in this period by trying to mediate Syrian-Israeli peace talks. Although none of the agreements between Syria and Turkey was intended to be anti-Israeli, and though during the same period Turkish-Israeli economic and political relations continued without interruption, the demise of one of the raisons d'être of the Turkish-Israeli partnership started to influence the relationship between Turkey and Israel. In particular the security-oriented nature of the relationship took a hit with the increasing normalization of ties between Turkey and Syria.
Another incentive for Turkey to align with Israel in the early 1990s was the security crisis with Greece in the Aegean Sea. Turkey and Greece had many significant unresolved problems, including the 12-mile question and the dispute over Cyprus. In 1996, the two countries came to the brink of war as a result of the Kardak Islands, two small deserted spits of land in the Aegean. In some instances, Greece also utilized the tension between Turkey and Syria in order to mobilize Arab support for the question of Cyprus.20 But relations improved dramatically when Greece became one of the first countries to offer humanitarian assistance to Turkey following a major earthquake. Turkey reciprocated when an earthquake shook Athens later the same year. These two humanitarian gestures led to a renewal of positive relations.21
The personal diplomacy between Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou also contributed to the thaw.22 This was the first time since the rapprochement between Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal and his Greek counterpart, Andreas Papandreou, that these countries had become so close. Later, when the European Union granted candidacy status to Turkey, relations with Greece further improved. The EU integration process eliminated Greece as a security threat to Turkey. After the election victory of the JDP in November 2002, the rapprochement continued as Greece became one of the first countries visited by Erdoğan, even before he held an official title. The end of the security-oriented foreign policy resulted in a change in Turkish foreign policy priorities and a relative decline in weapons purchases from Israel, which had been directed towards a threat from Greece. The normalization of foreign relations with Turkey's southern and western neighbors created a new environment for Turkish foreign and strategic policies that would indirectly shake the foundations of its relations with Israel.
Turkish Domestic Politics
Domestic politics in Turkey have also changed drastically since the 1990s and the disappearance of the conditions that had made for a smooth improvement of relations with Israel. The first major change over the last 10 years has been the emergence of public opinion as a significant force in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy. In the new Turkey, there has been a substantial increase in public interest and attentiveness to foreign-policy issues. Particularly with the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003, public opinion reflected strong opposition to the war and played a significant role in the Turkish Parliament's refusal to allow the United States to deploy its troops from Turkey. Later, with the help of the expansion of social media and the EU reform packages, which allowed nongovernmental organizations to easily organize rallies and spread opinions, the role of public opinion in Turkey became a significant force. In the 1990s, when Turkey and Israel were forming their alignment, the public was sometimes uninformed or indifferent to foreign-policy issues, and their feedback was not sought out by the state establishment. During the long election cycles of the 1990s, the foreign-policy issues were not considered significant or game changing by political parties. However, throughout the 2000s, the Turkish public became more involved in foreign policy, and thus Turkish-Israeli relations attracted more attention.
The second, but related, transformation in Turkish politics took place as a result of changes in the foreign-policy decision-making process. Fifteen years ago, when Turkey and Israel were signing strategic agreements, the signature under those agreements came from the deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Çevik Bir, not from an elected civilian or a political appointee. Some civilian government officials stated in private conversations that government ministers, in some instances even foreign ministers, were not informed about these agreements — nor could they ask for an explanation from the chief of staff. But as the public's role in Turkish politics increased, the foreign-policy decision-making process also started to change.
Historically in the Turkish Republic, foreign policy was considered to be the responsibility of only the foreign-policy bureaucracy and the military. Foreign-policy strategies were decided by the National Security Council, whose members were predominantly generals. Civilian elected officials were considered either untrustworthy or incapable of handling issues like state security, other than to serve as rubber stamps. But increasing public attentiveness brought accountability, and civilian officials started to have more of a say in the direction and orientation of foreign policy. Additionally, independent think tanks and foreign-policy institutes became important platforms for intellectuals and foreign-policy specialists to come together and discuss issues critical to Turkish foreign and security policy. This transformation led to the civilianization of the foreign-policy-making process. With steps towards active civilian control of the military, elected civilians took on more authority and accountability on issues related to national security and foreign policy. This changed the nature of interaction between Turkey and Israel.
The Failure of the Peace Process
The partnership between Turkey and Israel was never independent from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since the formation of diplomatic ties between the two countries, relations were constantly interrupted by conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors. After the 1956 Suez Crisis, the nascent diplomatic relationship was downgraded to the level of chargés d'affaire. Although the countries repaired ties in later years, when Israel declared Jerusalem its capital in 1980, relations were lowered again, to the level of second secretary.23 In 1992, Turkey and Israel restored their diplomatic relations with the initiation of the peace process. However, after its failure and with the start of the second Intifada, ties became strained. The criticism of Israeli policies in the region by Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit hurt the relationship between the two governments as well. And, although they did not lead to a suspension of relations, clashes in the region resulted in constant challenges. After the JDP came into power, regional issues continued to impede bilateral diplomacy. With the increasing public attentiveness, the conflict in the region started to gain a more determinant role in bilateral relations. During this time, the Turkish government tried to negotiate agreements between Syria and Israel in order to make the region a conflict-free zone. However, following Operation Cast Lead, ties were once again challenged, which led to the crisis at Davos.24
THE PATH FORWARD
In the absence of a common regional threat and with the ongoing crisis between Israel and Palestine, when viewed in the context of the changes in Turkey's foreign-policy decision making, what can bring about better relations between the two countries? Although the Obama administration played a key role in mediating the dispute, third parties can only play a limited role in the future of Turkish-Israeli relations. With a changing Turkey and a transitioning Middle East, strong bilateral relations can perhaps be restored through a revitalization of the peace process and the emergence of a more integrated Middle Eastern economy.
Considering the increasing desecuritization of bilateral relations and the absence of a major mutual threat, the restoration of ties depends on common regional policies. The revival of the peace process should be considered the most important one. Given its relations with Hamas and other Palestinian factions, in particular, Turkey is situated in an important place, with the ability to talk to all of the actors and with the credibility to be a mediator. This could work in the situation in Gaza today. In recent months, the most effective cooperation between Turkey and Israel took place during the ceasefire talks in the aftermath of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense.25 In addition, in their statements following Israel's apology, both governments cited the improvement of the humanitarian situation in Gaza as an area of Turkish-Israeli cooperation.
Furthermore, Turkey's credibility in the Middle East and in the Arab-Israeli conflict can perhaps effectuate a more comprehensive peace process — to achieve not only peace between states but also peace among the people of the region. In the changing circumstances, Turkey can mend ties with Israel only when there is movement toward a comprehensive peace process. Public opinion in Turkey as well as in Arab countries, which predominantly support a two-state solution, will favor the improvement of relations only when they believe the attainment of regional peace is feasible. Secretary of State John Kerry's recent statements regarding bringing Turkey into the peace process demonstrate that international public opinion also seeks a Turkish contribution to this initiative.26
A second factor that can foster better ties would be increasing economic relations between the two states, which in the long run can pave the way for region-wide economic integration. Turkey has built up strong economic relations with various countries in the region over the course of time. Economic integration and interaction also have extended to other areas of cooperation and created incentives for the development of diplomatic relations as well. Under these changing circumstances, there is more space for economic relations and civilian initiatives to contribute to the emergence of a more multidimensional relationship with Israel, with the inclusion of other states of the region. In this sense, the natural resources of the Mediterranean Sea can also become an important vehicle to better economic relations. Of course, this will be complementary to the peace process as a source of improving ties between Turkey and Israel. Both economic and diplomatic attempts to strengthen them will still be vulnerable to conflict and public disapproval without a meaningful and promising peace process in the region.
1 Stephen Walt, "Why Alliances Endure or Collapse," Survival 39, no. 1 (1997): 156-179.
2 Facebook Page of Benjamin Netanyahu, March 21, 2013, http://www.facebook.com/Netanyahu.
3 "Davutoglu Reveals Details of Israeli Apology" Middle East Monitor, March 25, 2013, http://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/5576-davutoglu-reveal….
4 "Turkey and Israel Hold Fresh Flotilla Compensation Talks" Hurriyet Daily News, May 6, 2013, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-israel-hold-fresh-flotilla-compensation-talks.aspx?pageID=238&nID=46308&NewsCatID=352.
5 Michael J. Koplow, "Why Israel and Turkey Got Back Together: The Coming Cooperation on Syria and Energy," Foreign Affairs, March 23, 2013, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139076/michael-j-koplow/why-israel-and-turkey-got-back-together. Also see Washington Post Editorial Board, "Israel and Turkey Let Bygones Be Bygones," March 28, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/israel-turkey-let-bygones-be-bygones/2013/03/28/1292f73e-9704-11e2-814b-063623d80a60_story.html.
6 Taha Ozhan, "Sometimes an Apology Is Just an Apology," Hurriyet Daily News, March 29, 2013, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/sometimes-an-apology-is-just-an-apology.aspx?pageID=449&nID=43850&NewsCatID=436.
7 The debate between Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Peres, which led Erdoğan to storm out of the meeting.
8 A crisis that took place after the Turkish ambassador to Israel was summoned to the Israeli foreign ministry and was seated in a lower chair.
9 Ofra Bengio, Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of the Middle Eastern Outsiders (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
10 Ufuk Ulutas, "Turkey-Israel: A Fluctuating Alliance," SETA Policy Brief, no. 42, January, 2010.
11 For an overview of relations between Turkey and Israel, see Sergey Minasian, "The Turkish- Israeli Military and Political Cooperation and Regional Security Issues," Iran and the Caucasus 7, no. 1-2 (2003): 309-326; Ofra Bengio, Turkish- Israeli Relationship; Meliha Altunısık, "The Turkish-Israeli Rapprochement in the Post-Cold War Era," Middle Eastern Studies 36, no. 2 (2000): 172-191; Suha Bolukbasi, "Behind the Turkish-Israeli Alliance: A Turkish View," Journal of Palestine Studies (Autumn 1999): 101–05; and Mahmut Bali Aykan, "The Turkey-U.S.- Israel Triangle: Continuity, Change, and Implications for Turkey's Post-Cold War Middle East Policy," Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 22, no. 4 (Summer 1999).
12 Kilic B. Kanat, "Continuity of Change in Turkish Foreign Policy under the JDP Government: The Cases of Bilateral Relations with Israel and Syria," Arab Studies Quarterly (2012).
13 Kilic B. Kanat, "Evolution of Turkish-Israeli Relations 1992-2008: Causes, Actors and Reactions," Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 36, no. 2 (2012).
14 Cevik Bir and Martin Sherman, "Formula for Stability: Turkey Plus Israel," Middle East Quarterly (Fall 2002): 23-32.
15 Hasan Kosebalaban, "The Crisis in Turkish-Israeli Relations," Middle East Policy 17, no. 3 (2010): 36-50.
16 Kilic B. Kanat, "Continuity of Change."
17 Mahmut Bali Aykan, "The Turkish–Syrian Crisis of October 1998: A Turkish View," Middle East Policy 6, no. 4 (1999): 174–191.
18 Meliha Benli Altunisik and Ozlem Tur, "From Distant Neighbors to Partners? Changing Turkish-Syrian Relations," Security Dialogue 27, no. 2 (2006): 217-236.
19 Ozlem Tur, "Turkish-Syrian Relations: Where Are We Going?" UNISCI Discussion Papers, No.23, May 2010.
20 Bulent Aras and Hasan Koni, "Turkish-Syrian Relations Revisited," Arab Studies Quarterly 24, no. 4 (2002): 47-60.
21 James Ker-Linday, "Greek-Turkish Rapprochement: The Impact of Disaster Diplomacy?" Cambridge Review of International Affairs 14, no. 1 (2000): 215-232.
22 Stephen Kinzer, "Earthquakes Help Warm Greek-Turkish Relations" New York Times, September 13, 1999, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/13/world/earthquakes-help-warm-greek-turkish-relations.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm.
23 Ufuk Ulutas, "Turkey-Israel: A Fluctuating Alliance," SETA Policy Brief, no. 42, January 2010.
24 For a more detailed analysis of these factors, see Kilic B. Kanat, "Evolution of Turkish-Israeli Relations."
25 "Israel and Turkey Resume Talks to End Diplomatic Crisis" Haaretz, November 23, 2012, http://www.haaretz.com/misc/iphone-article/israel-and-turkey-resume-tal….
26 "John Kerry Seeks to Bring Turkey into the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process" Haaretz, April 6, 2013, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/john-kerry-seeks-to-bring-turkey-into-the-israeli-palestinian-peace-process.premium-1.513823.