When Turkish prime minister Mesut Yilmaz hobnobbed with Israeli leaders on September 7, there were hardly any quizzical eyebrows raised. This is furthur affirmation of the close ties with Tel Aviv which have long been assiduously cultivated by the Turkish secularist political elites and their shoulder-boarded godfathers in the military.
This highlights the depth of gulf that divides Kemalist Turkey from the plight of millions of Muslims suffering under Israeli occupation, aggression and repression. Kemalist Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel in 1949 and has maintained friendly relations with the Jewish state ever since.
Yilmaz’s visit comes amid a marked increase in the tempo of high-level exchanges between the two Middle Eastern military heavyweights. It was only in July that Turkey’s foreign minister Ismail Cem made a three-day visit to Israel during which he held talks with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, president Ezer Weizman as well as a number of Israeli cabinet ministers and businessmen. Cem, whose itinerary included a pilgrimage to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, dismissed the concerns voiced by many Arab and Muslim countries at the deepening links between Ankara and Tel Aviv, saying: ‘Our relationship with Israel is not a topic which we will discuss with any country.’
That Turkey’s relationship with Israel would be a source of grave alarm for decision-makers in neighbouring capitals should not come as a surprise. Regional jitters are clearly justified. The disconcerting and alarming nature of the relationship stems from its preoccupation with cooperation in the military sphere.
The current episode of warmer ties between Anarka and Tel Aviv has been built around a bilateral ‘defence’ pact signed in 1996. The accord specifies terms for regular strategy talks, intelligence sharing and lucrative arms deals whose value is expected to reach the US$1 billion mark. Equally disturbing are provisions allowing Israeli air force planes to use Turkish airspace for the ostensible purpose of training. In return, Israel agreed to offer training to Turkish pilots and the Israeli Organization for Planes Manufacturing secured a US$630 million contract to upgrade 54 of Turkey’s fleet of F-4 fighter jets with avionics and other high-tech gadgets.
The increasing military cooperation between the two countries reached new heights last January when they held their first joint naval drills with the United States, codenamed Operation Reliant Mermaid, off the coast of Israel in the Mediterranean. During that same month an agreement to manufacture Israeli Arrow missiles in Turkey was also signed. Among others, Iran, Iraq and Syria, as well as Greece and Russia, who view the warming relationship between Anarka and Tel Aviv with great foreboding and apprehension, condemned the exercises, which included naval and air search and rescue operations involving an unidentified number of naval vessels and aircraft and more than 1,000 seamen, as a threat to regional security.
As ties between Israel and Turkey grew closer, trust between Turkey and its Muslim and Arab neighbours sank deeper into a tenebrous realm. Repeated assertions by Turkish officials that their partnership with the Jewish State was not directed against any regional country were plausibly perceived to be perfidious. These assertions became manifestly meaningless and puerile during the February-March stand-off between Iraq and the US when Turkey expressed its readiness to allow Israel to send warplanes to fly through its airspace to mount retaliatory strikes against Iraq if Saddam Husain unleashes his missiles again on Israel.
Of course, the possibility of the Israelis launching attacks on Iraq through Turkish airspace make the scope and goals of the Turco-Israeli alliance loom ever more threatening and suspicious as it opens the prospect of similar attacks through Turkish airspace against other regional powers, especially Iran.
In addition, sources in the Iraqi opposition have also accused Turkey of getting help from Israeli military experts in its campaign against positions and bases of the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.
Turco-Israeli cooperation, dubbed a ‘strategic partnership’ by both Israeli and Turkish leaders, seems to be evolving into a tripartite alliance with Jordan as its third, but inferior, leg. During a visit paid in early June by Turkish air force chief of staff Elhan Keleek to Amman, Jordan and Turkey signed a military cooperation agreement involving pilot training.
The agreement also included stipulations on modernizing Jordanian F-16 warplanes in Turkey and on delivering two C-135 cargo planes assembled in Turkey under Spanish licence. It also established the basis of broader cooperation between Israel, Turkey and Jordan to train pilots in the field of electronic warfare.
Interestingly, the signing of the Turkish-Jordanian agreement came at a time when the two countries were conducting 20-day-long joint war games. The manoeuvres included flying a Turkish contingent into Jordan to carry out joint exercises with Jordanian armed forces, while a similar Jordanian contigent flew to Turkey for the same purpose.
Jordan also took part in the January naval manoeuvres as an observer. Jordan’s participation came in the face of strong criticism and calls for non-participation voiced by Arab League and numerous Arab countries, including Egypt and Syria.
But the Turkish-Israeli partnership is also moving beyond a mere military alliance. In May 1997, a bilateral free trade agreement was signed. According to Israeli figures, two-way trade, negligible in the early nineties, reached US$615 million in 1997, excluding the arms deals. The figure is expected to rise by 30 percent or more this year. Exchanges of economic, agricultural, and water experts have intensified as well. The two countries will also hold a joint economic conference in Israel in December.
The deepening relationship between Israel and Turkey does not augur well for the region. On the purely strategic level of analysis, the partnership seems to be inspired by the quest for a new-old Metternichian regional military architecture that nurtures and perpetuates a strategic regional equation already skewed in Israel’s favour. It could also have a far-reaching and significant bearing that goes beyond the Israeli-Arab conflict, with the Americans, Israelis and Turks all now trying to move into Central Asia.
Beyond that, the Turco-Israeli ‘strategic partnership’ has identified the Islamic movement as its current bugbear. During her visit to Israel in November 1994, then Turkish prime minister Tansu Ciller identified the containment of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ as a common goal binding both partners. She also regaled an audience of Israeli foreign policy cognoscenti at the Israel Council on Foreign Relations with a speech which included an oratorical call to arms to ‘stand up against extremism... to stand up to violence, if necessary by force.’ A cursory look at developments unfolding since then on the Turkish domestic political scene reveals that in Turkey’s kaleidoscope of Kemalist secularism and military despotism such catechisms are being enforced with theological rigour.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1998