Capital Ankara
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 90
Mobile Codes 532,533,542,505
ccTLD .tr
Currency Turkish Lira (1EUR = 1.95TL)
Land Area 783,562 sq km
Population 72.6 million
Language Turkish
Major Religion Islam

In Israel, Concerns over Turkey’s Present Orientation and Future Course

By Director Chris Deliso

Israel’s temporarily closure of four diplomatic missions abroad – including two in Turkey – due to fears over Hezbollah terrorist attacks indicates a deepening sense of unease, and could mark further deterioration in the once strong security cooperation and political rapport between the two countries.

Citing the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Jerusalem Post reported on February 17 that “a number of ‘irregular incidents’ had been noticed recently around a number of Israeli diplomatic missions abroad.” The Israeli embassy in neighboring Azerbaijan was also affected, while Jews in Istanbul also cited personal fears for their safety, YNet News has reported.

What lies behind these worrying developments? The prime factors that define Israel’s concerns about Turkey were explained by numerous Israeli (and other) experts from the academic, diplomatic, military and intelligence communities during a major conference held from February 6-9 in Tel Aviv. Organized by the Inter-Disciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, the event brought together a high-level assortment of international political, military, economic and economic leaders contributing their input before hundreds of international guests at the annual security conference, now in its 11th year.

While the broad sweep of topics over multiple speeches and panels involved Israeli national security and issues affecting it, such as the Iranian nuclear program, the Middle East peace process, unrest in Egypt and neighboring countries and the dynamics of the Israel-US relationship, Turkish affairs also proved an important topic of focus, both in public discourse and in numerous conversations conducted on the sidelines. Turkey’s interests converge and diverge on various points in its relations with Europe, the US and Israel itself, but are vital to all; therefore, representatives of all sides understand how much is at stake.

The Israeli perception that Turkey has some part to play in almost all of its key areas of concern was particularly interesting, and illustrative. Indeed, while there was only one panel devoted to Israeli-Turkish relations, the issue came up in passing or explicitly in comments from numerous speakers over the full course of the event. It become clear from the presentations and from interviews conducted for on the sidelines that the Israeli foreign policy and security communities are growing more and more concerned about Turkey’s reliability as an ally, its regional aspirations, and its potential as a security liability- as the events of this week have forcefully indicated.

Turkey: Where Is It Heading?

In a speech dedicated mostly to the Iranian threat and the current civil unrest in Arab states, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, Head of the IDF Plans and Policy Directorate, also mentioned Turkey as a point of concern. “We do not see it as radical,” stated Maj. Gen. Eshel, “but where it is heading is a big question.”

This question is becoming increasingly acute now, at a moment when Israel could use all the allies it can get in an increasingly turbulent region. Aside from the open threats from Hezbollah, violent revolutionary unrest has spread from Arab states in North Africa through the Middle East and Persian Gulf, with the future unclear and previously ostracized groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood hoping to gain from instability. Not incidentally, Tehran is making bellicose moves, such as requesting Egypt to allow passage of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal to dock in Syria. At this critical moment, instead of being able to turn to a reliable ally in Ankara, Israeli officials are instead seeing a pro-Islamist Turkish government that has taken steps to significantly warm relations with Tehran, announced plans to train Syrian troops, and been involved in several provocative activities against Israel- most notably, the Gaza flotilla operation of last May.

Probably alluding to the role of the flotilla organizer (the Turkey-based IHH charity) during his presentation at Herzliya, Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Rafi Barak noted that the rise of NGOs and “civil society” in general has also been accompanied by a new “blurring of the differences between combatants and non-combatants” in localized conflicts.

Noting that Turkey seems to have ambitions towards becoming a regional superpower, Barak added that “we are looking at this closely.”

The Israeli raid on the allegedly “humanitarian” activist flotilla was widely condemned at the time, further fuelling latent Israeli concerns that the country is all too often unfairly demonized in the international press. But other things, from overt political rhetoric to popular culture, have also alarmed Israelis and Jews worldwide. Most recently was the Turkish action film Valley of the Wolves- Palestine, in which a Turkish commando team goes on the warpath in Israel in search of soldiers involved with the Mavi Marmara raid. Released on 28 January 2011, it entered the Turkish box office at number one, garnering over $3.8 million in its first weekend.

Israel’s ambassador to Ankara, Gabby Levy, denounced the film at the time, stating that it “has anti-Israeli and has anti-Semitic reflections,” while the Jewish Community in Vienna pressed charges for these reasons. (Turkish commentators, meanwhile, claim that the film has aroused relatively little interest as the Valley of the Wolves franchise has in general lost a good deal of its initial excitement over successive installations).

Nevertheless, it is clear that the filmmakers’ claims to be merely bringing the plight of the Palestinian cause to world attention are highly revealing about the sort of gestures that are seen as useful and politically palatable in Turkey today. The film has also opened in Western Europe and now the Balkans. It will be interesting to see how Muslims there with a pre-existing prejudice against Jews and Israel react to watching it.

An Ally Lost?

In light of the vast changes in political and cultural relations in Turkey over the past few years, it is not surprising that some Israeli experts are already writing the epitaph for their old ally. “Everyone knows that the Turkey we knew is not going to come back,” is how Dr. Shmuel Bar, Director of Studies at IDC Herzliya’s Institute for Policy and Strategy put it for

This sentiment about this critical Western ally is shared by many Israeli experts, who often allude to the orientation of the current government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AK Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/ Justice and Development Party). Comprised partially of remnants of overtly Islamist parties that were banned in the late 1990s, and with a strong base in the more pious and provincial Anatolian region, the party came to power in 2002 and has since then undertaken a foreign policy unprecedented in its degree of independence and activism, attempting to involve itself in mediating differences and projecting power in the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East and wider Muslim world, while also sparking a power struggle with the Turkish military- the ostensible upholders of Ataturk’s secular republic.

“The AKP adopted the Muslim Brotherhood model that had been previously rejected in Egypt, but gave it a certain respectability,” noted Dr. Bar. At the same time, “the Turkish military has become less able to retain its model as the bastion of secularism.” He also blames the “sins of omission” of the secularist parties, who “didn’t realize that they needed to keep their constituency” when they ended up losing dynamism and relevancy in a changing Turkish society.

But were there indications of this shift? “In the academic and security community, it has been known for some time,” stated Dr. Bar, adding that it has become much more notable over the past 2-3 years.

For his part, Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, Vice-President of the Jerusalem Academic Center at the Lander Institute, and a former head of the research division of IDF military intelligence, was more precise. When asked whether Israel had been taken by surprise by Turkey’s Islamic re-orientation, Maj. Gen. Amidror stated for that “the IDF’s military intelligence had done a study on this in 1995,” which concluded that Turkey was indeed headed in that direction. “However, as was the case with [the surprise uprising in] Egypt recently, it was too hard to establish a specific number of years in which it would appear.”

Since the major focus of concern is the orientation of Turkey’s government, it is not surprising that Israeli and other observers are assessing the political conditions that fostered its arrival, and that may play a role in the future.

Some analysts have been pointing out for years that one of the main opposition parties to the AKP, the CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi/ Republican People’s Party), is relatively weak- even amusingly so. This perception was given somewhat of an endorsement, from a European point of view, when Constanze Stelzenmüller of the German Marshall Fund stated during her Herzliya presentation that secularism in Turkish politics is “in ossification,” and opined that the opposition is “hardly an attractive choice” for most voters. Considering that this perception is, in various forms, fairly widespread in European capitals, it is not surprising that the EU has tended to suffer the AKP’s occasional over-indulgences on the domestic and international stage. There is simply nowhere else to turn.

Another key difference in Europe’s relationship to Turkey, of course, is the latter’s status as a candidate country for the EU. It is also viewed as a strategic partner, chiefly in economic terms, but also as a bridging partner in areas of the continent where the EU has provided anemic results thus far.

It was thus no surprise to hear Michael Leigh, the European Commission’s enlargement chief, disclose in his Herzliya speech that the EU sees a key role for Turkey in Bosnia and Kosovo. Of course, the burden of resolving the EU’s failed nation-building experiments there is hardly an unwelcome one for a Turkish administration that sees the Balkans as an integral part of its larger historical, religious and cultural territory.

At the same time, EU encouragement of a ‘Turkish model’ of ‘European Islam’ – as an apparent antidote to the radicalization of Muslim immigrants in their own midst – has meant that EU governments, universities and other institutions continue to fund programs and projects that abet Turkey’s political and religious issues there as well. The Turkish government has played its cards masterfully indeed.

Israel and Turkish Internal Political Consumption

Interestingly, the heightened focus on Islam in Turkey’s internal politics of late has also brought Israel, however involuntarily, into the discourse- most notably with the controversial events of last May. Yet outside viewers often overlook the internal political aspects of such international events, and the strategic use of timing to redirect attention from the opposition’s public discourse.

For example, “the flotilla [to Gaza] left Turkey on the day when the new CHP leader was beginning his first tour of the country making speeches,” stated Professor Barry Rubin, head of the IDC Herzliya’s GLORIA Center, for “The government used the provocation to stir up both patriotism and religious fervor, trying to mobilize political support- I worry that we might see similar stunts before the next Turkish election.”

In this context, it might be interesting to note that according to media reports Turkish police and intelligence services just a few days ago issued specific predictions regarding where pre-electoral violence or terrorism is likely to occur, whom it would likely target, and who would be the likely perpetrators.

In any case, there are clear indications that Israel (as well as the European Union and other key players) are paying close attention to upcoming campaigning in Turkey, and what may come after it.

Some fear that the Erdoğan government – which is generally expected to win a majority of parliamentary seats – will try to interpret a renewed mandate as a referendum on its religious-oriented views. “Let’s see what the future of this region holds after the June elections in Turkey,” said Israeli Maj. Gen. Amos Gilead in a presentation, echoing the concerns of many others at the Herzliya Conference.

However, despite the AKP’s confidence about another victory some, like Professor Rubin, are not completely pessimistic about the opposition’s chances. “In the polls, I’ve seen the parties are closer than people seem to claim,” he noted. “Of course, the AKP would come in first- but the question is whether a CHP-MHP coalition could get a majority.”

While the implications for Turkey’s relations with Israel, in whatever post-election scenario, are not yet clear, there is no doubt that the Israeli government is keenly monitoring the situation. It is also, of course, monitoring the security implications.

Israeli-Turkish Security Cooperation: The Great Unknown

The final, and probably most serious question, thus becomes to what extent Turkey’s re-orientation of priorities and politics in the Erdoğan era has affected intelligence cooperation between the Mossad and its Turkish counterpart, the MIT (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı/ National Intelligence Organization).

Ironically, here one might recall that when cooperation between Israel and Turkey had reached an all-time high back in the late 1990’s, there was widespread speculation that Israeli intelligence provided vital assistance in the MIT’s kidnapping of Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan from his Greek minders in Kenya in February 1999. “Ocalan’s capture certainly carried some of the hallmarks of a Mossad operation,” said one expert for Time. “There’s been strong security cooperation between Israel and Turkey, and the Mossad certainly has a well-established capacity to undertake such complex missions in faraway countries.”

Similarly, on August 9, 1999, the Associated Press discussed the Ocalan kidnapping in the context of a sudden spike in Turkish abductions of other Kurdish leaders, noting that military ties “have grown sharply during the past few years between Israel and Turkey [and] also had a positive impact on ties between their secret services.”

Whatever the truth may have been, it is hard to imagine Israel taking part in any such adventures on Turkey’s behalf today. Instead, over the past few years, it has had to be concerned about terrorist attacks against Jewish sites and Israelis in Turkey, such as the Istanbul synagogue bombings of 15 November 2003, and rumored plots on Turkish soil, such as the February 2009 warning over possible attacks against Israeli citizens that led to the temporary cessation of Israeli flights to Antalya.

Although a deterioration in security cooperation cannot definitively be discerned in the case of this past week’s Israeli embassy closures, mutual lack of trust or cooperation could well explain Israel’s precautionary measures during this past week.

According to Dr. Bar, who previously served for over 30 years in areas of research, diplomacy and planning in Israel’s intelligence community, “the MIT has already been taken over at the top leadership positions.”

Dr. Bar also underscored that it is not only Israel that the Turkish intelligence agency is at odds with. “You can see it in the whole cooperation. If you ask US or EU officials, they will tell you that they are very frustrated with the relationship,” he stated. “The MIT has become very dogmatic. It is no longer reliable.”

Further Developments

The Turkish leadership, for their part, does not seem particularly concerned about what anyone thinks of it. In a sign of how greatly United States influence has declined in the eyes of Turkish leaders, Prime Minister Erdoğan blasted US Ambassador Francis Joseph Ricciardone on Friday for criticizing press freedom in Turkey, calling him “a rookie” who had “walked into a trap” in a country beyond his understanding.

Nevertheless, US officials chose to steer clear of offending the prime minister after this insult. Turkey’s very unique geographical placement, cultural diversity and regional and economic connections means it is courted far more often than it is criticized by allies like the US. These factors also mean that Turkey can – unlike other nations – operate on several fronts simultaneously, while often displaying a knack for managing to turn international crises and other people’s headaches into diplomatic and developmental opportunities.

Indeed, even as Turkish diplomats were assiduously writing down what Israel and the EU think of them from their seats in the Herzliya audience, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan, was visiting Baku to meet with Azerbaijan’s National Security Minister, Gen. Eldar Mahmudov and President Ilham Aliyev. While their meetings were ostensibly concerned with countering terrorism and organized crime in the region, it is not implausible that the security chiefs may have also sought to assess what would happen if the current rebellious streak gripping other Muslim states spreads to Azerbaijan- as the other states affected, relatively autocratic in nature.

Their discussions may well have also included Azerbaijan’s steady military build-up for a possible second showdown with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh- something which few outside parties would be prepared to contain at present. In any case, relations between Turkey and its closest ally are excellent as always- while Israel’s embassy in Baku remains closed over security fears.

The intelligence front offers further ironies. In September 2010, Hürriyet reported that a wave of reforms begun by Emre Taner, the predecessor to MIT chief Fidan, is expanding in new ways. For example, the agency “has started to send young women spies to all corners of Turkey and the rest of the world… Turkish female James Bonds are coming.”

One of the reasons cited for why females had previously been mostly relegated to desk jobs, instead of field positions, was “family reasons.”

According to the report, “although MİT is one of the strongest intelligence agencies in the Middle East, it does not have an international network comparable to that of MOSSAD, CIA or MI6.” Yet even contemplating such a reform would not have been possible without the secular state basis originally conceived by Ataturk- something which critics fear is now in danger of being eroded by the present regime, in pursuit of an Islamist agenda. Over the long haul, the balancing act between liberal reform and an illiberal agenda will become increasingly hard to manage. Until then, the government seems keen to take from the best of both worlds.

Peripheral Opportunities

Do foreign governments, does the US in particular, share Israel’s concerns over the Islamic orientation of the current Turkish government? While “a lot of European governments do see this, the Obama Administration doesn’t want to see it,” stated Professor Rubin. “If they don’t want to see it, then no amount of evidence will suffice. The Turkish government’s vote against sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program should have been enough.”

The question of the Turkish government’s “arbitration” role towards Iran’s nuclear program was one of the most hotly-debated topics at the Herzliya Conference’s Turkey panel. In a separate speech given there, British Defense Minister Liam Fox proclaimed that “Iran needs to engage seriously and constructively. It did not do so at Istanbul” This reference to the recent 21 January P5+1 negotiations in Istanbul was met with much approval.

Back in August 2010, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed concerns that “the nomination in recent weeks of a new chief of the Turkish secret services who is a supporter of Iran worries us.” Barak added that Fidan’s appointment could result in “the Iranians having access to secret information.” (Fidan had represented Turkey at the International Atomic Energy Agency before his appointment on 27 May 2010).

In May, when the Turkish government was taking some heat in the press for its Iran-Turkey-Brazil “fuel swap” solution to the nuclear issue, things changed (four days after Fidan’s appointment), when the Gaza flotilla raid occurred. Negative media coverage of Israel increased exponentially, and the public discourse was immediately changed from the Iranian nuclear threat to human rights and the Palestinian issue. Meanwhile, in Turkey, the public was being fed a story sustained by both the government and opposition that Israel had secretly led contemporaneous Kurdish guerrilla attacks on the Turkish army, something that the more responsible domestic media rubbished.

Most important in the end, though, is the inscrutable behavior of Iran, which Israel presents as the number-one threat to peace in the Middle East. In an attempt to raise national morale at Herzliya, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy delivered a rousing speech on February 7 in which he sought to reassure his countrymen (and the outside world) that Iran was in fact “not ten foot tall” and that it was high time for the Israeli public to regain their confidence, and realize that their formidable security apparatus makes Israel – and not Iran – the regional superpower. Israel and Iran have been at war for over 20 years, in a “mostly clandestine” capacity, stated Mr Halevy, who concluded that Israel and the US will prevail in the end. And numerous lesser-informed experts, Turkish and non-Turkish alike, have argued that it is not in Turkey’s interests for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons- something that may indeed never occur.

Yet at the same time, it is also clear that continued Iranian saber-rattling at very least is conducive to Turkey’s aspirations to be a key player in the region; the more Iran acts up, the more Turkey can portray itself internationally as a willing arbiter of security disputes.

Further, other things that Israel considers “provocations,” like Iran’s current demands to sail through the Suez, also inevitably distract international attention and resources from other areas where Turkey is expanding its influence on all fronts- and where Islamist groups hostile to Israel also operate relatively undisturbed. In this light, it is obvious that Israel’s wariness about a once close ally is becoming a new factor of concern as it estimates its national security strategy and allocation of resources in the years ahead.

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