15 - 21 October 2009
The Turkish refusal to allow Israel to participate in military
exercises has plunged Turkish-Israeli relations into a crisis,
and marks yet another power shift between civilian and military,
writes Gareth Jenkins from Ankara Click to view caption Turkish
and Armenian foreign ministers signed pacts in Zurich this week to
establish diplomatic ties after nearly a century of bitterness
The ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) last week cancelled
permission for Israeli aircraft to participate in the annual Anatolian
Eagle military exercises in protest at Israel's policies towards the
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
The Anatolian Eagle air exercises have been held nearly every year
since 2001 with the participation not only of Turkey and Israel but
also of planes from Turkey's NATO allies, particularly the US. This
year's exercise, which had originally been scheduled for 12- 23
October, had been planned months in advance. When it became clear that
Israel would not be allowed to participate, the NATO forces withdrew in
protest, leaving the Turkish air force to conduct the exercises alone.
Military-to-military ties have long formed the backbone of the
Turkish-Israeli relationship. Israeli companies have been awarded a
series of lucrative defence contracts in Turkey. Turkish pilots have
been trained at Israeli air force facilities in the Negev desert.
Israeli pilots have travelled to Konya in central Anatolia, where they
have used Turkey's extensive air space to conduct training exercises.
Relations between the two militaries have not always been smooth,
but the Turkish General Staff (TGS) has traditionally adopted a very
pragmatic attitude towards the relationship. Despite their private
reservations, Turkish officers have rarely publicly criticised Israeli
policies towards the Palestinians.
Yet the same has not been true of the JDP, particularly since Israel
launched its brutal military assault on Gaza in December 2008. In
January 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan famously
stormed out of the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Switzerland,
after accusing Israeli President Shimon Peres of "knowing very well
how to kill". Significantly, since the Gaza operation, Israeli pilots
have not been invited to use the Konya air range.
Tensions have intensified since the appointment of Ahmet Davutoglu,
Erdogan's former foreign policy advisor, as Turkish foreign minister in
May 2009. An Ottoman nostalgist, Davutoglu has consistently advocated
forming closer ties with Muslim states in the Middle East in an
attempt to reassert Turkey as the dominant power in the region. In
recent months, both Davutoglu and Erdogan have relentlessly criticised
Israeli policy towards Gaza and become outspoken advocates for Hamas,
even in its internal conflict with Fatah.
When the news broke of Israel's exclusion from Anatolian Eagle,
officials from Turkey's Ministry for Foreign Affairs disingenuously
tried to claim that it had been for "technical reasons". But Davutoglu
was less circumspect. When asked why Turkey had prevented Israel
from participating, he told reporters: "We hope that the situation
in Gaza will be improved, that the situation will be back to the
Publicly at least, the Israeli government has tried to downplay the
rift by issuing anodyne statements about the importance that it still
attaches to ties with Turkey. But, privately, many both inside Israel
and in the Jewish community in the US have made no secret of their
fury. There have been numerous calls for Israeli defence companies to
stop selling weapons and equipment to Turkey. Jewish groups in the
US have threatened to withdraw their support for Turkey's lobbying
efforts to prevent the Obama administration from recognising the
For others, the Turkish refusal to allow Israel to participate in
Anatolian Eagle is final proof of what they had gradually begun
to suspect. "We used to be told that the Turks liked us," said one
Israeli businesswoman. "That began to change after Davos. Now we are
seeing their true faces."
The exclusion of Israel will also have come as a shock to the US.
Anatolian Eagle used to be the main opportunity for Israeli and US
planes to exercise together.
Perhaps equally important is what the exclusion of Israel says about
the changing balance of power between the military and the civilian
government inside Turkey. Since the JDP first took office in November
2002, it has proceeded very cautiously in its relations with the TGS.
The refusal to allow Israel to participate in Anatolian Eagle is
the first time the JDP has imposed its will on an issue related to
defence in open defiance of the wishes of the Turkish military.
In the wake of the NATO announcement that it was withdrawing from
the exercises in protest at Israel's exclusion, the TGS posted a
statement on its website pointedly noting where responsibility for
the decision lay. "As the result of discussions between countries
conducted by the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, international
participation has been postponed," it said.
In the past, the TGS did not even consult with the civilian authorities
before deciding which countries it would invite to participate
in military exercises. But, over the last two years, the fiercely
secularist TGS has not only seen its sphere of influence reduced but
has come under unprecedented attack from supporters of the moderate
Islamist JDP in the Turkish media and the judicial system. As a result,
the TGS now has to choose which battles it is going to fight or risk
losing what is left of its once considerable public prestige.
In recent years, and particularly since the December 2008 onslaught
on Gaza, there has been a rapid rise in anti-Israeli and anti- Jewish
sentiment in Turkey. Under such circumstances, applying pressure
to the JDP to allow Israel to participate in Anatolian Eagle was a
battle that the TGS knew it was unlikely to win
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