Turkey’s Cut of Military Ties With Israel Was a Long Time Coming

Crisis in relations between the two countries came to a head some 18 months before the Mavi Marmara affair, at the end of 2008, when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.

Turkey's announcement on Friday that it is suspending all military cooperation with Israel, in the aftermath of publication of the Palmer Report and Israel's refusal to apologize for the deaths of nine Turkish nationals aboard the Mavi Marmara in May 2010, is a further deterioration in a relationship that has been on a downward spiral for several years.

Military ties between the two countries really took off in the early 1990s and reached a peak later that decade. The Israel Air Force held many training exercises in Turkish airspace, taking advantage of the wide open spaces to train for scenarios that Israel's limited airspace makes impossible. The two countries also signed large arms deals and the exchange of intelligence and other information between the two armies became a matter of routine.

Turkey military council

The downward trend started in 2007, after the reelection of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his (Islamic ) Justice and Development Party. The crisis in relations came to a head some 18 months before the Mavi Marmara affair, at the end of 2008, when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. The timing of the operation was seen as especially problematic from a Turkish perspective, coming just days after then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had visited Turkey, where Erdogan had been involved in trying to renew peace talks between Israel and Syria.

In the aftermath of Cast Lead, Turkey significantly scaled back military ties with Israel: Israeli planes no longer trained in Turkish airspace and the Turks even refused to participate in a joint naval exercise with the United States, since the Americans planned, as they had previously, to allow Israeli forces to take part.

At the same time, a radical Islamic activist - who was believed to have close ties with Iran - was appointed head of the Turkish intelligence services. This, too, led to an Israeli decision to scale back intelligence cooperation with Ankara. The IDF, however, continues to keep a military attache at the Israeli embassy in Ankara, but overall military cooperation and delegations between the two countries have been low-key since then. The Turks, for their part, have frozen several joint security deals, including the upgrade of Turkish tanks in Israel and the purchase of unmanned aircraft by the Turkish Air Force.

The support expressed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz for an Israeli apology to Turkey stems less from a belief that military ties between the two countries can ever be restored and more out of a desire not to wreck what remains of the bilateral relations.

Barak and Gantz believe Turkey to be an important regional player that Israel would be best served to maintain some kind of dialogue with. In addition, they wished to avoid a situation in which Turkey carried through on its threat to back Islamic organizations' efforts to have Israeli commandos and the officers who oversaw the raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

In and of itself, the Turkish decision to sever military ties with Israel will cause only limited damage, since these ties have, in any case, been significantly scaled back over the past three years. That said, the IDF's legal team will be meeting in the coming days to discuss how to best protect officers and commandos from the threat of legal action.