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Despite Reconciliation, Israel-Turkey Military Ties Are Far From Their Glory Days

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The Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is a belated, but necessary move. In addition to noting the impressive achievement chalked up by U.S. President Barack Obama prior to his departure from Israel and the potential strategic benefits of the good news from Ankara, one should consider the reconciliation in its true proportions. Anyone still expecting a rapid renewal of the extremely close relationship that existed between the two countries in the 1990s is likely to be disappointed.

The deterioration in Jerusalem's relations with Ankara started way before the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. Turkish criticism of Israeli steps taken to counter Palestinian terror gradually mounted throughout the Second Intifada, particularly after Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected prime minister in 2003. Soon, military ties with Turkey began a downward slope.

The deteriorating relationship had reached a point of no return a year and a half before the flotilla set sail for Gaza. This occurred when Erdogan was insulted by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to embark on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in December 2008, only days after visiting Turkey, during which Erdogan tried to mediate a renewal of diplomatic negotiations between Israel and Syria. On top of Erdogan's real fury directed at his Israeli counterpart, it seemed as though the Turkish prime minister made a calculated decision to distance himself as much as possible from Israel, as part of his efforts to redefine Turkey’s role and position in the Middle East.

Even after Friday's conciliatory announcement, it is hard to imagine military ties between the two countries returning to their glory days. It is likely that both countries will look for some symbolic, gradual moves toward basic military ties. In the past, Israel benefited greatly from the joint manoeuvres with Turkey, which enabled its pilots to train for scenarios involving attacks on distant targets, such as the nuclear facilities in Iran. But since then, alternative training locations have been found in Greece, Bulgaria and Romania.

Furthermore, the close intelligence ties between Turkey and Iran, which exist despite their disputes, deter Israel from any collaboration which could lead to a leaking of sensitive information. Nevertheless, one can expect positive developments such as the renewal of multi-player exercises, led by the United States, particularly naval and rescue training missions that also include the navies of other countries. Another development could be the improvement of ties with NATO, which Turkey has impeded in recent years. The deals between Israel Military Industries and Turkey, which were suspended in 2008 and again from 2010 onward, may be unfrozen.

Strategically, there is some benefit in the fact that the Turks made their move despite Iran’s displeasure. It remains to be seen whether the rapprochement will in fact contribute to a reduction in arms smuggling from Iran to Lebanon's Hezbollah, much of which occurs through Turkish territory, or to a decrease in the activity of terrorist organizations, that use Turkish soil as a base for planning operations against Israel. As sources in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bureau emphasized, there is now a potential base for coordination with Ankara on Syria, whose accelerated destruction is causing similar concerns for Turkey and Israel.

The reconciliation was widely supported by Israel's defense establishment. Former defense minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz have been urging such a move for a long time. Israel's incoming defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, opposed making apologies in the past, but has changed his mind and now supports the new developments. Ya’alon and Gantz were particularly keen on the clause which removed the threat of criminal charges against IDF officers and soldiers. Even though the move has so far not had any practical implications for participants in the assault on the Marmara, there is great symbolic significance in the fact that Ankara has suspended legal action.  

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.Credit: Reuters

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