Why it's no longer the chummy 1990s for Turkey, Israel
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are working hard to repair relations between Turkey and Israel. They deserve credit for their efforts. But much has changed for both countries since they cooperated in the 1990s, and progress toward rapprochement will likely be slow.
Good news from the Middle East is worth savoring these days, so President Obama is entitled to take a bow for helping ease the long strain in relations between Israel and Turkey. Furthering that progress was high on Secretary of State John Kerry’s agenda, as he visited Turkey on Sunday and then flew on to Israel.Skip to next paragraph
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But let’s not get carried away. The to-do list for renewed cooperation is long: Syria, the Middle East peace process, and the general uncertainty created by the Arab Spring. Much separates these two countries that once shared a strategic closeness so needed in this troubled region.
Certainly Mr. Obama recognizes the need for rapprochement. As he was leaving Israel late last month, he helped broker an apology from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the death of nine Turkish citizens killed in an Israeli commando raid on a Turkish ship bound for the Gaza Strip in May 2010.
Such an apology had long eluded other mediators, and Obama’s efforts helped halt the damaging deterioration of relations between two of America’s most important allies in the Middle East. But Israel’s apology is unlikely to spur a return to the type of warm defense and intelligence cooperation that marked the two countries' relations in the late 1990s.
The close Turkish-Israeli defense relationship of that time was the product of a specific strategic context – and the geopolitical circumstances that drove Turkish-Israeli cooperation have changed significantly since then.
In the 1990s, Turkey was driven closer to Israel out of regional necessity. Turkey’s relations with the Arab world were frayed, and Turkey needed Israel as a bulwark against Syria, which had one of the largest and best equipped armed forces in the Middle East.
Today Ankara’s strategic situation is radically different. Turkey’s relations with the Arab world have significantly improved. Mr. Erdogan’s own brand of moderate political Islam and willingness to talk tough on behalf of the people of Gaza have made him one of the most popular leaders in the Middle East. Many Arabs see the Turkish political-economic system as a potential model for their own countries. Thus Turkey needs Israel less than it did a decade ago.
Moreover, those warm 1990s defense ties between Israel and Turkey stemmed from a domestic political context in Ankara that has changed dramatically. The main proponent of the close defense and intelligence ties with Israel was the Turkish military. Back then, the generals had the dominant say on Turkish foreign policy. Today, the military’s influence over Turkey’s role in the world has palpably declined. Over the past decade Erdogan has systematically strengthened civilian control over the military. Today, the elected prime minister, not the unelected military, determines policy toward Israel.