The Israeli-Turkish Connection

Dr. Efraim Inbar
Bar-Ilan University, Israel

February 3, 1999

Israel has long sought a close strategic relationship with Turkey. Israeli leaders beginning with David Ben-Gurion have hoped that a closer relationship with Turkey would help dilute the religious element of the Arab-Israeli conflict, provide Israel with an important strategic ally and trading partner and reinforce Israelís ties to NATO and Europe. Turkey, on the other hand, showed little interest in a strategic relationship with Israel during the Cold War years, preferring to look to the West rather than the Middle East for allies.

Dramatic changes stemming from the collapse of the Cold War system of international relations, however, caused Turkey to reevaluate cooperation with Israel. The new relationship which has developed is perhaps the most significant development in Israeli foreign policy since the Israeli-Egyptian rapprochement. Since the early 1990s, the Israeli-Turkish relationship has proved robust, surviving several important challenges including repeated crises with Iraq, the Oslo peace accords and significant changes in government in both states.

Turkey and Israel share a number of common strategic interests, rendering them natural allies. First, both countries depend on the United States for their security. Consequently, both fear that the end of the Cold War could lead to diminished US interest in the Middle East. Domestic political opposition in the United States to both Israel and Turkey heighten this fear. Second, the maintenance of a politically and militarily fragmented Middle East is a primary strategic interest for both Israel and Turkey. Both states seek to prevent the rise of a regional hegemon. Third, both countries face a common enemy in Syria. Israel and Turkey have serious ongoing disputes with Syria over territorial borders, terrorism, water rights and certain aspects of the Middle East peace process. Fourth, Israel and Turkey share a common interest in curbing the influence of radical Islam. Turkey sees fundamentalism primarily as an internal problem, while Israel sees it as an external threat. Fifth, both states have an abiding interest in preventing other Middle Eastern nations from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Sixth, both Israel and Turkey are seeking to develop their domestic defense capabilities and industries. Turkey sees Israel as a source of military technology and weapons, while Israel sees Turkey as a valuable market. Finally, both states face similar problems in their relations with Europe. European support of Kurdish and Palestinian groups and negative cultural attitudes of Turks and Jews strain relations with Europe for both Israel and Turkey.

The new Israeli-Turkish relationship has several important implications for the region and the world. First, the two states can combine forces to prevent the hegemony of Middle Eastern states such as Syria and Iran. Second, the closer relationship between Israel and Turkey has already prompted Syria to seek counter-balancing alliances with other Middle Eastern states. Finally, the Israeli-Turkish relationship will help forward US policy in the Middle East. In particular, Israel and Turkey may be able to carry out operations that the United States finds politically problematic.

Efraim Inbar is presently Associate Professor in Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and the Director of its Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. His area of specialization is Middle Eastern strategic issues with a special interest in the politics and strategy of Israeli national security.

Rapporteur: Ben Valentino


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