Why We Need Turkey

Israel can choose to blow off ties with Turkey amid the current diplomatic brouhaha, but it simply wouldn't be wise

"You have to understand the historical aspect of our relations. We the Turks still have an Ottoman view of the region, whereby it's more natural for us to have ties with Israel than with the Arab countries," a member of the Turkish National Security Council told Haaretz last week, as the relationship between the two countries continued to deteriorate.

"The Arabs' betrayal of the empire is rooted in our consciousness. The cultural rivalry with Iran is also part of our informal education. Israel and the Jews are our real allies," he added, noting that he is frustrated by the current diplomatic situation.

In Israel, however, history is of no importance. Relations with Turkey are judged by the 1996 military treaty, which was severely tested this week. These military relations include joint exercises with the armies of Turkey, the United States and sometimes Jordan; the use of Turkish airspace for Israeli air force maneuvers; counter-terrorism cooperation; sales to Turkey of unmanned aerial vehicles, tank upgrades, F-4 aircraft upgrades, Israeli missiles, and sophisticated electronic systems; and just as importantly, a warm, friendly, almost familial relationship between the two nations' top military officials.

When Israel postponed signing an agreement to purchase water from the Turkish Manavgat River in 2003 for political reasons, Turkey threatened to suspend military projects with Israel. However, this has never really been on the agenda.

"Someone in [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's government thought that he could use this threat. We explained to him that he can say whatever he wants and we the Turkish military establishment will do what we need to do," a senior official from Turkey's National Security Council told Haaretz at the time.

As of last week, it seemed like the army was on Erdogan's side. The same army that last summer nearly toppled the government when it initiated a legal suit against the prime minister and about 70 Parliament members over the head-scarf law announced last week that statements by Israel's ground forces head Major General Avi Mizrahi "are liable to harm relations between the countries."

Mizrahi, as published in Haaretz, had criticized Erdogan's condemnations of Israel, stating, "first look in the mirror."

Israeli Defense Ministry sources have told Haaretz that there are no new deals in the works that need Turkish government approval, and that current deals are progressing as usual, so right now, the Turkish statement need not be examined. The concern is for the future, however.

Turkey, which maintains one of the largest armies in the world, with more than 700,000 soldiers and an annual budget of about $12 billion, consumes enormous quantities of military equipment and technology. Israel, which exports an annual $1.5 billion in goods and services to Turkey, and imports more than $1 billion, cannot just look at these dry numbers in order to determine the damage or benefits that would be caused by a change in diplomatic relations.

This is not only a matter of the Turks' efforts to mediate between Israel and Syria, readiness to invest in the territories, expected supervision of the Rafah crossing, or efforts to bring Hamas and Fatah to a reconciliation. Turkey is the only Muslim country that sees the Iranian nuclear threat as an immediate danger, just as Israel does. It is also the only Muslim country that maintains excellent trade and diplomatic relations with Iran, Syria, Iraq and Israel, without any of those countries conditioning its relations on Turkey severing ties with one of the others. Thus Turkey can serve as an informal link between declared enemies.

However, even more important is Turkey's strategic view of itself: a power that sees to the security of the nations of the region and is involved in the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Africa and the Islamic countries. As such, it conducts an independent policy toward Iran and drafts agreements for oil and gas even when Washington reprimands it. It meets with Hamas leaders and causes Israel headaches, it is a close friend of Pakistan, and last week it signed a friendship treaty with Saudi Arabia.

Israel, which has always aspired to protect itself by means of a non-Arab belt that has included at various times Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia, can decide that it prefers to be insulted by Erdogan and send relations with Turkey tumbling into the abyss. There is, however, not much strategic wisdom in this.