Rocking the Mideast With an Unlikely Alliance
Largely Islamic Turkey locks arms with Israel; Arabs see a military threat
ANKARA, TURKEY — The joint military exercise could not have looked more innocent. Turkish and Israeli warships "rescued" dummies floating in the water, in a mock "humanitarian" operation. United States sailors were also on hand.
But it was the rhetoric that gave the game away. Turkish and Israeli officials tried too hard to portray their first naval maneuver last month as no more than a friendly Mediterranean tea party.
Arab enemies charge that the blooming strategic alliance between Turkey and Israel targets them, but the partygoers deny any alliance, or that it is directed at anyone in the Middle East.
To ease the pressure, even the name was changed from Operation Reliant Mermaid I - which implied a possible sequel - to just Operation Reliant Mermaid. But few believe that the increasingly close partnership between Turkey and Israel will run out of steam soon. At stake are numerous multimillion-dollar defense deals, intelligence sharing, and a friendship based on a list of common enemies and attitudes.
"Where in world history was a fishing boat saved by five frigates?" asks Metehan Demir, defense correspondent for the Turkish Daily News. "This is an alliance - how else can you describe it? This is the strongest army in the region, pairing up with the most sophisticated army, so Turkey and Israel are ready for anything. The message is: 'We are strong.' "
That message is what increasingly worries Arab capitals from Damascus and Baghdad to Cairo. Compounding their concern is how uniquely Turkey and Israel seem to fit each other as friends today.
Others have been ruffled. In Israel Wednesday, the Greek ambassador was called in to protest criticism by Greece's foreign minister of Israeli-Turkish military ties. Greece and Turkey have long been bitter rivals. Greek Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos told reporters in Cairo Monday that Turk-Israeli ties represent "an alliance of wrongdoers that brings us to a cold war situation."
Turkey is staunchly secular but Muslim, and Israel is a Jewish state, but in almost every respect the alliance yields benefits for both. Turkey was, after all, the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel after it declared independence in 1948.
Ties are officially characterized by understatement, but most agree that the two countries see themselves as warrior nations surrounded by hostile enemies. One Turkish Army captain explains the bottom line: "Turks and Jews never fought a war against each other, but they have both fought Arabs."
The ties coincide with a massive military modernization drive in Turkey that senior officers say could be worth as much as $150 billion in the next 30 years. Israeli defense contractors are believed to be involved in bidding for every major contract, and have already landed two jet-fighter upgrade projects that total $707 million.
The growing relationship also comes at a time when Turkey - recently snubbed in its 35-year-old application to join the European Union - is looking east for friends. The Middle East, instead of being the negligible backwater it was when Turkey played a key NATO security role during the cold war, is suddenly seen to be Turkey's front yard. The Arab fixation with Israel will not be allowed to derail Turkey's aims.
"The Arabs have an intrinsic attitude to blame others when they fail," says Seyfi Tashan, director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute. "If they don't deal with Israel, it is their fault, not ours. They lost the wars, they negotiated badly - we don't want to suffer from that."
Though Turkey and Israel did $500 million in nonmilitary trade last year, and expect that figure to double in 1998 because of a recently approved free-trade agreement, Turkey's military shopping list is almost endless and includes several big-ticket contracts such as $5 billion for 1,000 battle tanks.
Though Turkey serves as the eastern anchor of the NATO alliance, requests for such top-of-the-line hardware from the United States have often been delayed in the past. US officials point to human rights abuses against civilians in Turkey's 14-year war against separatist Kurds, and its military occupation of northern Cyprus.
Israel can meet almost all of Turkey's high-tech arms requirements, can provide the technology transfer that senior officers crave to make their forces self-sufficient, and doesn't raise sticky human rights questions.
In their eagerness to sell, Israeli officials are also reported to have presented a briefing on the joint US-Israel Arrow antimissile project, which is still in development and so sensitive that even US defense officials are not sure if the US can legally "borrow back" the technology for their own projects.
More than just arms sales
But diplomats and analysts says that that the ties go much deeper than simple arms sales among friends. Though intelligence ties have been longstanding, the militaries of each side are "seriously bonding," says one Western military analyst.
Two defense cooperation agreements signed in 1996 ensure that Israeli pilots can train in Turkey's vast airspace, and from the border areas can conduct direct surveillance on Syria, Iraq, and Iran - the three nations that top Israel's enemy list.
"There is a lot of smoke and mirrors in any arms deal in the Middle East," say the military analyst. "But this relationship is very important and will continue to grow. There will be more joint operations, and the militaries all get along as tough Samurai warriors. It's a psychological connection that scares their neighbors."
One Israeli official notes: "Turkey is at the top of our list of neighbors because it is important, and it is close. It is part of the neighborhood. A close neighbor is closer than a faraway brother."
Though Washington has blessed the relationship - even encouraged it, to give Israel a strong friend during the Arab-Israel peace process - diplomats suggest that Turks may have become too fond of the idea of a trilateral buddy system.
"A lot of Turks feel comfortable with this idea of an Israel-Turkey-US strategic and economic relationship," says one Western diplomat. "For them it is 'the good guys, the advanced guys, and gives us friends we don't mind being linked with.' "
But Turkey has worn this new mantle at some cost in the Arab world and President Suleyman Demirel withdrew from the December Islamic summit in Tehran abrubtly because of noisy Arab attacks on Turkey's friendship with the Jewish state.
Arabs - and some Turks - may see this as a zero-sum game, in which Turkey must make a choice between Arab nations or Israel. The Israelis hope that at some point Turkey may serve as a "bridge and not a barrier" between Israel and Arab nations.
The public relations benefit for Turkey is noted by every Turkish and Western analyst: support from the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington.
"This relation is not really directed against Arabs, because we believe no Arab state can attack or destroy Turkey. It never happened in our history, because we were the empire," says Hasan Koni, a professor of international relations at Ankara University and head of the Turkish-American Association in Turkey.
"So why these ties? To find protection against the Western powers," he says. "When you are living in Washington, you can see the reason: You have to have a strong lobby with you. Nobody can defeat the Jewish lobby in Washington."
These lobbies have already made critical differences in tight congressional decisions, analysts say, and this is the first time that the country has been able to counter anti-Turkey lobbies led by pro-Kurdish, Greek, and Armenian interests. More and more congressional and pro-Israel groups are visiting Turkey.
For Turkey that means it is no longer constantly on the defensive in Washington. But some defense analysts here worry that the surge of energy in this alliance could make Turkey too reliant on Israel for military supplies.
For now, however, that risk is not stopping Turkey's generals from enjoying the "double benefit" of ready arms and a strong lobby, and dreaming of a Mermaid II. Says one Turkish analyst: "They are like kids in a toy shop."