My Enemy's Enemy: Turkey, Israel, and the Middle Eastern Balance of Power

By Dibner, Gil | Harvard International Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

My Enemy's Enemy: Turkey, Israel, and the Middle Eastern Balance of Power


Dibner, Gil, Harvard International Review


GIL DIBNER, Editor-in-Chief, Harvard International Review

Turkey's alienation from Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s led the political and military leadership in Ankara to re-evaluate Turkey's strategic situation and seek new allies. Turkey pursued and won an improved relationship with Washington and, despite Russian aspirations, is steadily building an increased presence in Central Asia. The most dramatic result of the new thinking in Ankara, however, is Turkey's strategic partnership with Israel, a development that may fundamentally alter the Middle Eastern balance of power. In recent years, Israel and Turkey have concluded a series of trade agreements and military arrangements that cover, among other things, training, intelligence-sharing, and counter-terrorism measures. In addition, Israel has sold Turkey hundreds of millions of dollars in advanced military equipment and is the leading bidder for several additional contracts. This alignment has taken place despite fears of an Islamic awakening in Turkey and despite the objections of Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Greece. The extent and depth of the Turkish-Israeli alliance reflects the number and severity of the threats Turkey faces from the Islamic world and suggests that Turkey will remain firmly aligned with the West. The alliance will help both Turkey and Israel confront shared threats from Syria, Iraq, and Iran and may form a key element of a US-sponsored regional security regime.

In the first weeks of 1990, the Euphrates stopped flowing into Syria and Iraq for about a month as Turkey filled the reservoir behind the newly completed Ataturk Dam, part of an aggressive hydroelectric and irrigation program. As Turkey celebrated the technical success of the project, its relations with Syria and Iraq deteriorated as both came to fear Turkey's increased ability to control their water supply. Syria and Iraq drew closer together, and their assistance to Kurdish rebels increased, signaling Turkey that they were able to exert pressures of their own. In May 1990, the Israeli Foreign Minister invited the Turkish charge d'affaires to meet with him in Jerusalem. It was the first high-level meeting between Israeli and Turkish officials in ten years, and it would inaugurate the growth of a remarkably close relationship between the two countries. It was also the first sign that Turkey's strategic calculus had begun to shift.

Since then, Israel and Turkey have constructed a close alignment based on military cooperation, joint training exercises, and intelligence sharing coupled with negotiations on water and oil issues. This alliance is deep and based on sound strategic calculation. Both countries are regionally isolated and seek to contain serious threats posed by Syria, Iraq, and Iran. If it is capable of withstanding the objections of Islamist elements within Turkey, the Israeli-Turkish alignment has profound implications for the Middle Eastern balance of power.

Roots of Alignment

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Turkey shut down the Iraqi pipeline to the Mediterranean (through which Iraq exported 54 percent of its oil), forced Saddam Hussein to prepare for a two-front war by deploying 10,000 troops to the border with Iraq, extended an agreement allowing the United States to use Turkish airbases, and allowed the use of NATO airbases near the Iraqi border for strikes on Iraq. In return, Turkey hoped for full membership in the European Union (EU). But Turkey was passed over for membership in 1994 when the EU admitted Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Norway and again at the Luxembourg EU summit of 1997. Officially, the reason for Turkey's exclusion was continued human rights abuses in Turkey, but few accepted this at face value. The decision was based on thinly disguised ethnic and religious prejudice coupled with historic Greek antipathy. Mesut Yilmaz, Turkey's Prime Minister at the time, was furious and accused the EU of erecting a "cultural Berlin Wall. …

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