Turkish-Israeli-Syrian Relations and Their Impact on the Middle East

By Gresh, Alain | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Turkish-Israeli-Syrian Relations and Their Impact on the Middle East


Gresh, Alain, The Middle East Journal


The alliance between Israel and Turkey has become a fundamental element in the geopolitics of the Middle East. Generally perceived, despite official denials, as anti-Arab, this alliance has mobilized significant sectors of the Arab world, and more particularly Syria, which worries about being encircled by unfriendly states. The problem is compounded by the fact that peace negotiations between Tel Aviv and Damascus are at a standstill, and that there appears to be little hope that this deadlock will be resolved in the near future.

The "new regional order" promised by Washington at the end of the 1991 Gulf War appears to be illusory. The peace process is stalled, there is continuing tension on the Lebanese-Israeli border, and fighting is taking place in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Arab frustration is also mounting over the US government's double standards, as Washington maintains a relentless blockade on Iraq but fails to put pressure on Israel's government that is violating both the Oslo accords and the UN resolutions on the Palestinian territories. These problems may be undermining US influence in the Middle East, but they are also leading to a breakup of regional cohesion and a search for new alliances by the local powers. The military agreement between Turkey and Israel is not only an example of these new alliances, but it is being countered by another front led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

A RESHUFFLING OF ALLIANCES: ISRAEL AND TURKEY

At the start of 1996, a few weeks after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, the new Israeli prime minister, faced a serious dilemma. As negotiations with Damascus appeared promising, he had to decide whether to strike a deal with Syria before the Israeli general elections due in November 1996, or to move the election date forward. He decided on the second option, a decision which resulted in the victory of Binyamin Netanyahu, in May 1996, and the freezing of the peace process. That lack of progress on the peace talks, however, has not unduly worried the Israeli right wing, which is more concerned with issues of security and regional stability.

Moshe Arens, Israel's defense minister (1983-84, 1990-92) and foreign minister (1988-90), was Netanyahu's political godfather in the 1980s. He has since distanced himself from his former protege. A respected figure of the right, Arens describes the view of the present Likud government toward the region in the following words: "The Middle East will remain an unstable region for decades to come. A treaty signed with Syria does not carry the same weight as an accord with, say, Norway. We had excellent relations with the Shah of Iran, and they got broken overnight. In this region it's bullets, not ballots, that dictate the future of the ruling powers."'

Arens has also justified Israel's right to refuse to hand back the Golan Heights, even as part of an overall peace agreement with Syria, by arguing that: "We would risk paying dearly for giving it up. During the October 1973 war, the Golan was almost entirely reconquered by Syrian troops who could have gone on advancing right up to Haifa. Our reserves arrived at the last minute. What would have happened if we hadn't had the Golan as a shield?"2

Arens compares the present day Middle East with nineteenth century Europe, which was governed by a regional balance of forces between the different powers. Israel must, according to him, retain its overwhelming military superiority, its security arrangements, and demilitarized zones, and establish, in Netanyahu's words, "a peace founded on strength."3

The military alliance between Israel and Turkey, negotiated by Yitzhak Rabin in 1994-95, changed the regional balance of power, according to Arens.4 Two agreements, in which some clauses remain secret, were signed in February and August 1996 between Israel and Turkey. They provide for joint air and naval exercises, access to port facilities and the opportunity for the Israeli air force to train over the Anatolian plateau. …

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