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Ankara’s Growing Importance for Israel in the Post-American Middle East

July 29, 2007


By Mehmet Kalyoncu

Several developments are concurrently taking place in and around the Middle East, both national and regional ones, which are likely to have wider implications. First, the United States is reluctantly starting to realize that the mission “Operation Iraqi Freedom” is failing, and that fairly soon the withdrawal of troops from Iraq will be no longer an option, but a necessity.

Second, Turkey voted for its future with the parliamentary elections on July 22. The AK Party of PM Erdogan won a landslide victory, receiving 46.6 percent of the votes and thus becoming the only party in the past 57 years to increase its votes in the second term.[i] As such, the electoral victory has not only given the AK Party another five year in office, but also a strong popular mandate for its policy course in both domestic and foreign affairs. However, although Erdogan’s AK Party has indeed won the right to form the new government, questions remain over whether it will be able to govern.

Finally, despite all the international pressure and UN sanctions, Tehran is continuing its nuclear program. At the same time, its regional influence has grown, first through supporting the Shiite insurgents in Iraq and second through boosting its diplomatic relations with both Damascus and Riyadh.

What are the possible implications of these concurrent developments for Israel? One may be inclined to ask why for Israel but not for others. Certainly the same question may be raised for other states in the region, but what the implications will be for Israel is particularly important due to the particular position of Israel in the region. After all, the state of Israel has right to survive and to protect its citizens against potential threats. Yet it is not the only state which preserves those rights in the region. As such, with its unspecified but apparently immense military capabilities, Israel has a potential to trigger volatile events that are likely to affect both regional and international balance of power. Therefore, how would the outcome of the second development influence Israel, provided that the US withdraws from Iraq due to both its inability to maintain the costly war, and consequently is discouraged to confront Iran afterwards, and that Iran continues to become an ever more influential regional power as well as ever more antagonistic to Israel? These gradually materializing conditions put two options in front of Jerusalem to choose. It will have to either resort to military options against multiplied regional threats, or return back to its tradition of diplomacy, seeking to revitalize the old alliances, especially the one with Turkey.

The bell tolls for American withdrawal, as Tehran becomes a regional leader

A growing number of Democrat, and even Republican senators want to set a date for the withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq; their concerns have once again been ignored by the rejection of the Levin-Reed Amendment on US Policy on Iraq.[ii] However, the very fact that there is a demand for a phased redeployment of US forces from Iraq by the end of the year and growing public unrest over the failure of President Bush’s “new” strategy in Iraq, does suggest that the date for the withdrawal is soon, albeit not specified. The war in Iraq has cost the United States over 3,600 casualties, with an unspecified number of troops maimed or otherwise injured (believed to be around 30,000), and nearly $ 1 trillion in expenditures. This is expected to reach $2 trillion, provided troops remain in Iraq until 2010.[iii] Accepting the growing dissent over his Iraq policy, President Bush recently signaled “that he might be open to shifting toward a smaller, more limited mission in Iraq in the future.”[iv]

In the meantime, Iran has sought and to a great extent been successful in increasing its political influence in the region through supporting the Shiite insurgency in Iraq. Similarly, Palestine has provided a fertile ground for Tehran to boost its popularity among the Sunni Arabs as well. According to a recent ISNA (Iranian Student News Agency) report, Iran‘s foreign minister in a phone conversation with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al Faisal, discussed and talked about conditions in Lebanon, Palestine and bilateral ties. Minister Mottaki in this phone conversation stressed the importance of cooperation between all Islamic and Arab countries so as to aid the nation of Palestine and to free it from its current state.[v]

Similarly, Iran‘s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently paid a day-long visit to Syria in order to congratulate President Bashar al-Assad on the beginning of his second seven-year term as Syria‘s president, and to review expansion of Tehran-Damascus political and economic cooperation.[vi]

Tehran‘s engagement with the Arab governments in the region has started to yield tangible outcomes for its own ends. According to the ISNA report, President Ahmadinejad and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad issued a joint statement calling for unity in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq.[vii] The report quotes the Iranian president, saying “cooperation between Tehran and Damascus is to the benefit of the region and both sides will stand strong against all regional enemies.” Drawing the international community’s attention to the effect and dangers of Israeli’s nuclear weapons on international and regional peace and security, notes the report, both sides asserted the necessity for swift steps to be taken in order to face this threat.

Further, the statement reportedly condemned the continued actions of the Israeli regime, perceived as aggressive. In addition, Sharkul Evsat newspaper reported that Iranian President Ahmedinejad offered his Syrian counterpart $1 billion in the form of military aid if the latter cuts off its recently developing relations with Israel, and if the latter considers using the aid for military purchases from Russia.[viii]

Reviving Ben-Gurion’s peripheral alliance in the new era

The course of regional and international developments makes it necessary for Jerusalem to reconsider, modify and re-implement the peripheral alliance initiative of Israel‘s first President, David Ben-Gurion. In order to break the isolation imposed onto it by the surrounding Arab states and to gain their respect, Israel sought to establish an alliance with the countries in the periphery of the Middle East, which also outnumbered the Arab population in the region. The alliance was so crucial to the Israeli interests, argues Ofra Bengio, that in order to secure US support for forming the alliance, Ben-Gurion portrayed it as if it was crucial to US interests in the region as well, “[Ben-Gurion] sought to use American involvement or support for the agreement as an incentive to the countries in question to join in. In other words, Israel sought to use the United States to galvanize the pact, and use the pact to consolidate U.S. support for itself.”[ix] The alliance ironically involved Sudan, Ethiopia, Iran, and Turkey.

Bengio further suggests that according to the CIA report captured by Iran [revolutionaries] in 1979 from the American Embassy in Tehran, at the end of 1958 Israel, Turkey, and Iran signed an agreement to form an organization called Trident, aiming to exchange intelligence information among the three’s respective intelligence services.[x] The immediate threats that necessitated the peripheral alliance in the late 1950s have not disappeared but multiplied over time.

The state of the alliance

Today out of those erstwhile allies, Iran has turned into a staunch enemy whose president-elect vowed to wipe Israel off of the map; similarly, upon one allegation after another on carrying out genocide in Darfur, Sudan is waiting to be invaded by the very mediator and guarantor of that alliance, while the United States has not only diminished its soft power and popularity to engage any government, but also is rapidly depleting its hard power capabilities to deter any government in the region. Once the United States withdraws from Iraq before fulfilling its goals, which seems to be inevitable, the withdrawal will, to the dismay of those who believe in the necessity of US leadership in global affairs, also shake the invincible image of the United States. From that point on, the dynamics of the power struggle are likely to change forever in the region.

What else remains from the old peripheral alliance? Turkey. Can Turkey play any constructive role in preventing a regional or international conflict which would dramatically risk the survival of Israel?

The answer is certainly not as long as the new government is unable to engage the Middle Eastern states. Even if the AK Party government would like to continue its multi-faceted diplomacy with regional powers such as Iran, Syria, and Israel, its ability to do so will be hindered by the domestic political instability likely to stem from, respectively, the debate over presidential election, the Kurdish issue, and cross-border operation into Iraq. The very fact that the new parliament will consist of deputies from the left-leaning CHP, the ultra-nationalistic, right-wing MHP, and ethnic-Kurdish independent deputies, promises no easy solution on either of those issues. In that case, it is nothing but unrealistic to expect politically unstable Ankara, even with the AK Party government’s apparently clear win, to play any effective role in the Middle East.

What kind of Ankara in the post-American Middle East?

Two possibilities lie ahead of Ankara in the second term of the AK Party government. Ankara will either continue its multi-faceted engagement with the Middle East, or it will be bogged down in a series of political turmoil, and as such will not only be alienated from the region where Tehran is rapidly gaining prominence, but also from the West falling short of fulfilling the EU accession requirements. The political atmosphere in Ankara in the AK Party’s second term will pretty much determine Turkey‘s diplomatic capabilities in the post-American Middle East as well.

Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has prophesized political instability in the aftermath of the July 22 parliamentary election.[xi] Based on his assumption that the public rallies in spring were indeed against the AK Party instead of its presidential nominee, Cagaptay argues that the lifestyle issues, more specifically headscarf issue, will mobilize masses against the AK Party after July 22.

In addition, he suggest, the new parliament’s failure to elect a new president in thirty days after July 22 will lead to its dissolution and open the way for new parliamentary elections. Given the fact that the AK Party avoided the hot-button issue of the headscarf and sought to embrace all ways of life in its first term, and promises to continue this course by not mentioning the headscarf issue even in its party program, it is unlikely to cause instability during the AK Party’s second term. However, the political faultlines, which Cagaptay implies are likely to emerge in the new parliament consisting of leftist, Turkish nationalist and Kurdish nationalist deputies, are likely to cause instability in the parliament unless the parties recognize the country’s interest in reconciliation over the presidential debate. The ensuing political instability would not only diminish Ankara‘s ability to continue reforms, but also its ability to be diplomatically as active in the regional affairs. Yet, the ongoing transformation in the regional balance of power and formation of new alliances necessitate Ankara to be even more active than before.

During the last four and a half years, the first-term AK Party government has proven to be the only one able to communicate with all the parties in the Middle East. While Ankara mediated talks between Damascus and Jerusalem, it also sought to use its influence on the Hamas leadership for moderation. In a geographical area where almost every Muslim individual grows up being taught that they should take revenge on Israel, which is perceived as far from credible in the quest for peace, the latter needs an ally capable of deflecting anti-Semitic frustration and articulating the view to Arabs that Israel has a right to survive.


[i] See


[ii] “Democrats Lack Support to Force Vote on Pullout”, New York Times (July 18, 2007) available at


[iii] “Report: Iraq war costs could top $2 trillion”, Christian Science Monitor (January 10, 2006), available at


[iv] “Bush Counters G.O.P. Dissent on Iraq Policy”, New York Times (July 11, 2007)


[v] “Iran-Saudi Arabia discuss Lebanon and Palestine“, ISNA (Iranian Student News Agency) (July 06, 2007)


[vi]Ahmadinejad to visit Syria“, IRNA (July 15, 2007)


[vii] “Tehran-Damascus call for regional unison”, ISNA (Iranian Student News Agency) (July 20, 2007) available at


[viii] “Israil ile iliskini kes”, Yeni Safak (July 22, 2007), available atˆšÃ‘¬ˆžsrail-ile-iliˆšÃ–¬ükini-kes


[ix] Ofra Bengio, The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders, New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2004, pp. 40-1


[x] Ibid. pp. 44-5


[xi] Soner Cagaptay, H. Akin Unver “July 2007 Turkish Elections: Winners and Fault Lines”, Research Notes: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Number 14 (July 2007), pp. 8-9

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