Saturday, January 16, 2010

Israel and Turkey Hope to Salvage Their Damaged Alliance

The militaries of Israel and Turkey are trying to salvage an alliance severely damaged as Ankara realigns its position in the Middle East.

A one-day trip to Turkey by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak on Sunday will be the highest-level visit by an Israeli or Turkish official to the other country since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's explosive confrontation over the Gaza conflict with President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2009.

Already this week, a Turkish military team has been in Israel to test Heron unmanned aerial vehicles that Israel has contracted to sell to Turkey for just under $200 million. A senior Israeli official also was in Ankara this week to keep that much delayed deal on track.

Analysts say it is no surprise that the main effort to restore the relationship is coming from the two militaries, which have formed its bedrock ever since the alliance was formed in the mid-1990s.

At the time, the alliance gave Turkey access to technologically advanced military equipment and Israeli intelligence capabilities. Turkey was fighting a brutal counterinsurgency war with Kurdish militants who had bases in Iraq and Syria. Turkey and Syria came close to war in 1998.

Israel and Turkey signed more than 20 military agreements in the 1990s. One called for four joint air force training sessions a year in each country. The two navies participated in joint exercises and staff officers collaborated on war-game simulations.

Deals like Israel's modernization of 54 Turkish Phantom jets helped military exports reach $1 billion during the decade. Israel also supplied radar systems and missile components.

"Turkey is the only regional partner Israel has in terms of military relationship," said Gerald Steinberg, a political-science professor at Bar Ilan University, located outside Tel Aviv. "It once offset conventional threats from Syria, and was a threat to Hezbollah and Iran that Israel could strike from the north through Turkey."

But in the past decade, the collaboration has become less vital. Military trade dropped off. While Israel won a $688 million contract to modernize Turkish tanks, the Heron deal has been a bone of contention.

Mr. Erdogan's avowedly Islamic government is taking a much tougher view of Israel's role in Gaza and the West Bank, even as he restores relations with its Muslim neighbors, where criticizing Israel is popular. Turkey last year held its first joint military exercises with Syria, signed dozens of agreements with Iraq, and last week established visa free travel with Lebanon.

For Israel, the relationship with Ankara also has become less critical. A growing commercial relationship with India is overshadowing military business with Turkey, Israeli analysts say.

And the conventional military threat from Syria has diminished and Iraq has been removed for now as a foe.

Still, Turkey's military has significant contracts for arms purchases from Israel that it wants to see completed, says Hüseyin Bagci, professor of international relations at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. "On the political side, both governments are playing to domestic audiences and the latest conflict served both sides. On the military side, both sides try to arm each other," says Mr. Bagci.

Analysts believe the relationship will survive, though in reduced form, if only because for Turkey to become hostile toward Israel would severely complicate its relationship with the United States, and end support it has received from the Jewish lobby in the U.S. Congress.

Indeed, since Turkey's high-profile removal of Israel from planned NATO air exercises last fall, the two militaries in December conducted a joint search-and-rescue exercise in the Mediterranean. Also in December, President Peres and Turkey's President Abdullah Gül met on the sidelines of the climate conference in Compenhagen.

But this week's dispute over the Israeli foreign ministry's deliberate, televised humiliation of Turkey's ambassador has exposed a rift within the Israeli government over how to handle Turkey, says Alon Liel, a former foreign ministry director general.

A hard-line camp is led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to preserve Israel's honor in the face of attacks on its policy toward Palestinians—attacks that Mr. Erdogan makes frequently. The second camp is led by Mr. Barak, who reflects the desire of Israel's defense establishment to preserve ties with an important trade partner.

Unlike Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Barak also wants to resume peace talks with Syria, says Mr. Liel. Turkey had been mediating talks with Syria when the Gaza conflict began.


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