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Paper No. 1063                                                                            22/07/2004

Guest Column-by K. Gajendra Singh 

(May be read along with TURKEY & THE GREAT GAME IN NORTH IRAQ” )    

When questioned by journalists during his visit to Turkey last September, whether the United States was working to create a new axis between India, Turkey and Israel, Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee replied in the negative, but added that India was expanding its defence co-operation to a higher level. The question was posed because Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon had visited India a few weeks earlier, during which a number defence co-operation agreements were signed and many decades long relationship between Turkey and Israel had blossomed almost to a level of an alliance with Israeli and Turkish air force jets exercising together over central Anatolia. 

But the Turkish Israeli relationship has recently come under severe strain after Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly characterized Israel’s policy in Gaza as” state terrorism” and media reports claimed that Israel was interfering in Iraqi Kurdistan which could have adverse repercussions among Turkey’s own Kurds in adjoining south east. 

Israel’s deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Ankara in mid July to mend deteriorating relations between the two countries. Before returning home he said "I was reassured of the continuity and stability of relations. " The visit for an economic joint commission meeting by Olmert was the first high-level contact after Prime Minister Erdogan’s harsh criticism of Sharon’s policies. To which Israel would have normally replied sharply but it needs its only friend in the region, Turkey.

Olmert’s visit began on a wrong note with an "appointment crisis" with Prime Minister Erdogan leaving Ankara for holidays, a few hours before Olmert’s arrival, after holding talks with Syrian Prime Minister Naji al- Otri. Israel said that Olmert’s visit could not be proponed as he was busy in Brussels.  It was as well. In his May 25 meeting with Israeli Infrastructure Minister Yousef Paritzky, Erdogan asked the Israeli minister: "What is the difference between terrorists, who kill Israeli civilians and Israel, which also kills civilians?”

But it was an article in New Yorker magazine by veteran US journalist Seymour Hersh about Israel providing training to Peshmarga commando units in north Iraq and running covert operations in neighbouring countries which brought out in the open brewing differences between Turkey and Israel. The media reports were denied by both Israel and north Iraq Kurdish leadership. But Turkey was far from convinced. 

Israel is also reportedly infiltrating agents into Iran to plot Iran's clandestine nuclear weapons program for a possible pre-emptive strikes by the Israeli Air Force. Israel believes that Tehran is about a year away from a breakthrough in that program and is accelerating its Shehab intermediate-range ballistic missile program. Israel would prefer a weak and decentralized Iraq if not a divided one. 

According to Beirut’s Daily Star of 17 July, “ it appears that Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, one of Erdogan's closest confidants, was behind the leak on Israeli interference in Kurdistan, to demonstrate Ankara's deepening anxiety that Kurdish aspirations of independence will be fueled by Israeli interference. Indeed, the US debacle in Iraq is driving neighbors Turkey, Syria and Iran into each other's arms as all fear chaos in Iraq in the coming months” It added that “ Erdogan's government has embarked upon a high-profile diplomatic effort to bolster relations with the Arab and Muslim world which were blighted by Israel's 1996 military agreements with Turkey.

Turkey temporarily withdrew its ambassador and consul- general from Israel. Relations took a turn for the worse when the Israeli airline El Al had to suspend for two weeks 6 weekly flights to Turkey from June 24 in a row over security at Istanbul airport.

Annual trade between the two countries now amounts to $1.4bn excluding defence sector. Last year, more than 300,000 Israeli tourists (8% of population ) visited Turkey. Israelis find Turkey (and a few other countries like Romania) safer for holidays to escape tensions at home. During Paritzky’s visit agreements were signed for a US$800 million deal for the construction of three power plants in Israel. In March, the two sides signed an agreement for Turkey to sell to Israel more than 50 million cubic meters of water annually for the next 20 years.

Strained relations between Turkey and Israel caused serious concern to USA. US president George W. Bush asked Erdogan “ to tighten Turkey's relationship with Israel.” Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot said that Washington's concerns were conveyed by Bush in Ankara prior to the June NATO summit in Istanbul. It added that Bush stressed that friendly relations between Turkey and Israel would “contribute towards the best interests of the United States and expressed concern that an escalation in tension may spark instability in the Middle East.”

Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy commented recently. ``The groundwork of the Turkish-Israeli relationship as it stands in Turkey is eroding. It's too early to be alarmist, but I would say that the relationship is under a serious challenge.'' "What once was a marriage of love has become a marriage of convenience," said Dr Anat Lapidot-Furilla, a research fellow at Hebrew University’s Truman Institute in Jerusalem. "It is obvious that the 'strategic alliance' is in a period of erosion," commented Turkish columnist Erdal Guven in Radikal.

History of Turkish- Israeli Relations; 

Through out history Turks had good relations with the Jews.  When expelled from Spain, Jews found shelter with the Ottoman empire.  Even after the gut wrenching events of the First World War, when the Ottoman empire collapsed, Armenians were massacred, Christians exchanged with the Turks from Greece, Jews continued to live in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul, providing the financial acumen earlier supplied by Armenians and Christians. 

There has been no love lost between the Arabs and the Turkic people. Many Turks have still not forgiven the Arabs for stabbing the Ottomans in the back in First World War by the Arab revolt led by Lawrence of Arabia. After all, the Sultan Caliph in Istanbul was the guardian of Muslim sacred shrines in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Turkey joined Organisation of Islamic Conference ( OIC) only to garner support from Muslim states on Cyprus. Economic relations improved with Arab states when post 1973 jump in oil prices brought in sudden wealth.

But after the 1967 was and even after the 1973 war when the Arabs used the oil weapon, Turkey did not break relations with Israel. There was close cooperation on rightist and leftist and revolutionary student movements which affected Turkey, specially during 1960s and 1970s.  In 1971 Turkish students assassinated Israeli Consul General in Istanbul, a former senior Mossad officer. 

Israel has developed a top rate defence industry based on support and cooperation from USA. After the end of cold war, Turkey specially its armed forces felt a little left out.  So Turkey sold itself as a barrier between Europe and the Middle East and the Caucasus, both “cauldrons of fundamentalism and chaos. “ Its informal alliance with Israel, encouraged by Washington was useful for U S grants of sophisticated arms and equipment.

The fall of the Berlin wall also brought in far-reaching shifts in geo-strategic parameters.  The potential threats from the Middle East grew with many countries acquiring stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and arsenals of ballistic missiles.  Beyond potential threats, terrorist groups like PKK and others in the region were another menace. They could acquire chemical and biological agents.  So Turkey could no longer afford to overlook possible new threats from the Middle East. 

While Turkish policy towards Israel started changing in early 1990s, only in 1996 the two went public and signed an agreement on military cooperation.  Much has written about this evolving relationship with some political analysts calling it an "axis," an "entente" or even an “alliance. Of course there are no explicit commitments to assist one another in the event of an armed conflict but a careful interpretation of the provisions of the document shows that the enhanced cooperation could even reach levels usually among allies. 

Many joint military air and naval exercises were carried out since 1996.  For example the so called  "Anatolian Eagle," took place in central Anatolia in early July 2001.  It included air force units of Turkey, Israel and the United States and the air defense systems of all three countries. The exercise simulated defense as well as combat operations against a comprehensive air attack.  Such trilateral military exercises have put in place a mechanism for advanced military coordination. 

Then 11 September attacks against USA complicated the strategic environment. 

But the Palestinian cause always had supporters on the religious right, the "progressive" left and even in the Turkish mainstream. The Palestinians were faithful to the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. Many held high Ottoman posts and intermarried with Turks.  Media coverage of the Palestinian intifada further affected the Turkish public. Then in November, 2002 elections the Justice and Development party (AKP), which has Islamic roots, won 2/3rd seats , although it got only 34% of votes cast . Over 90% of Turkish population opposed US invasion of Muslim Iraq, which the secular Turkish military was very keen to join forcing the parliament to reject US request to open a second front against Iraq. Turkish -US relations nose-dived , but are now satisfactory. 

Israel guilty in North Iraq unless proved innocent

When Erdogan publicly criticized Ariel Sharon’s policies in Occupied Territories accusing Israel of  “state terrorism “, members of his ruling AKP, were even harsher, lambasting US policies too in Iraq. Turkish –Israeli relationship reached a low point. Erdogan turned down an invitation to visit Israel and temporarily withdrew his ambassador and consul general from Israel.

Then the New Yorker revelations made the simmering differences public. Turks were aware of Israeli activities in north Iraq. On June 23, the Israeli ambassador to Turkey, Pini Aviv, denied the New Yorker report that Israel took advantage of the US occupation of Iraq by expanding Israeli presence in the northern Iraq.  He reassured the Turkish foreign ministry that Israel had decided long ago not to meddle in Iraqi affairs.

Foreign minister Gul accepted Israeli denials. "The Israelis tell us those allegations are not true. But everybody understands regional and Turkish sensitivity to this issue, so we have to believe what we are told," the semi-official Anatolia news agency quoted Gul as saying. "I hope our trust [of Israel] won't prove wrong," he added. 

Turkey’s problem with its own Kurds

Turkey has serious problems with its own Kurds, who form 20 percent of the population. But after 5 years of comparative peace and quiet in Turkey’s southeast, there is now some upsurge in violent rebel activity. Kurdish rebellion since 1984 against the Turkish state led by Abdullah Ocalan of the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) cost over 35,000 lives, including 5,000 soldiers. With a third of the Turkish army tied up in the southeast, the cost of countering the insurgency at its height amounted to between $6 billion to $8 billion a year. 

When ever there has been chaos and instability in north Iraq, as during the Iraq-Iran war in 1980s or after 1991 Gulf war, PKK activity peaked up in Turkey. The rebellion died down after the arrest and trial of Ocalan in 1999, when a ceasefire was declared by PKK. After a Turkish court commuted to life imprisonment the death sentence passed on Ocalan in 2002 and the parliament granted rights for the use of the Kurdish language, some of the root causes of the Kurdish rebellion were removed. TV broadcasts in Kurdish have already begun. Till mid-1980s even the use of word Kurd was taboo and could even lead to imprisonment. 

Turkey fears that any moves to bolster Kurdish autonomy in Iraq could pave the way to the formation of a Kurdish state in Iraq and eventually fuel separatism among its own Kurds. Turkey also uses the pretext of protecting the rights of its ethnic cousins the Turkmen, traditionally settled around Kirkuk. 

Olmert’s Visit to Ankara

Ehud Olmert is an influential figure in the Israeli Cabinet and is in charge of ministries of industry, trade and labor.  Apart from a meeting with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, he had a "friendly, sincere and serious discussion" with Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Olmert said that "Gul repeated again the commitment of Turkey to carry on the relations with Israel on the friendly basis as in the past.” Olmert added that Israeli officials would soon visit Turkey to "continue the dialogue that we started. He also assured the Turkish leaders that Israel was not engaged in any relationship with Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq that co! uld jeopardize Turkish interests.

Gul made no public comments but many analysts believe that Turkey is reassessing relations that were so close in the past. Erdogan offered a warm reception to Syria's visiting prime minister, Naji al- Otri hours before Olmert’s arrival which Abdullah said was just a coincidence. There was an important Iranian delegation too in town.

Olmert played down Erdogan's outbursts and his not being able to meet with him in an interview with CNN-Turk television. "The two countries enjoy economic relations that are constantly growing deeper. Our relations are stable and will keep on growing. Israel wants to maintain its strategic ties with Turkey," said Olmert. He also denied reports that Israeli agents were operating in northern Iraq and provided training to Iraqi Kurdish peshmergas. "Israel has no relations with Kurds in the north of Iraq. Turkish authorities know about all the details. We want a united Iraq. We would never act against the interests of Turkey," Olmert told CNN-Turk. 

In Olmert’s talks with Abdullah Gül, apart from bilateral relations, the two sides focused on Turkey`s role in the Middle East peace process and recent developments. Olmert said that Israel considered Turkey a powerful force for stability in the Middle East. "Turkey would play an important role and would be a great power in the region,” he added. Olmert also informed Gul about plans for the Israeli army withdrawal from the Gaza strip but cautioned that preparations would require some time.  "One must understand that pulling out the settlements is not a simple operation. It has to be carefully prepared, and! it takes time. We are in favor of accelerating the preparations anyway if it is possible, so we shall see," he said.

Abdullah Gül on the other hand said "Sustainable peace in the Middle East should be provided immediately. Turkey is ready to do its best, " Gül said. He reiterated Turkey`s readiness to mediate with a view to finding a solution to the Middle East conflict.

Olmert told the daily Sabah that Israel proposed setting up a telephone hotline between Israel and Turkey to help avoid further tensions between the two allies. Israel was willing to give  detailed information about their policies on a daily basis.

Yilmaz Oztuna wrote in Turkiye that “ rescuing Palestinians from oppression and forging an Arab-Israeli peace, --- is a `mission impossible.’ Former US President Bill Clinton couldn’t manage it. This knot won’t be untied anytime soon. -- We don’t have the power to be a Middle East peace broker. Even if we had it, this would go against our interests. Anyway, what Mideast country would ask us to serve as mediator? These are hard political realities, not stuff for romantics and idealists.”

Yes, but the Turkish offer to mediate in Middle East is a policy change brought in by Erdoagn government, which earlier was of benign neglect. Once annoyed when told that there were El Al planes in Istanbul, Turkish president Turgut Ozal told the visiting Saudi foreign minister that it was Turkish policy not to meddle in disputes amongst its former subjects.

Olmert meets with Turkish Media

Olmert was more assertive in his breakfast meeting with Turkish journalists. When asked whether Turkey would undertake a role to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Olmert said that Israel was carrying out unilateral action (with drawl from Gaza and parts of the West bank) as setting up a dialogue would be a waste of time. It was to change the situation in the region. Neither Turkey nor the United States could do much now adding that Turkey would play an important role in future to provide stability and promote democracy in the region. Stressing that unilateral wit! hdrawal of Israel from Gaza strip was of historic importance, Olmert stressed that it was being achieved under the Likud leadership.

When questioned on relations between Israel and Syria, Olmert said that Israel gave priority to withdrawal from Gaza strip and formation of the coalition government. Asked about the West Bank barrier, recently ruled as a violation of international laws by the International Court of Justice, Olmert said it was purely a defensive measure. " Once the terror ends, the fence will be removed. The fence is reversible, death is not." The standard Israeli line.

Olmert and his Turkish counterpart for the Joint Economic Committee meeting, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Minister Sami Guclu, set an ambitious goal of doubling the two-way trade. Olmert said that an effort would be made to create better investment climate for the Turkish companies, which were doing well in Israel. He showed interest in energy projects in southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) (the project is in Turkey’s Kurdish region across Iraqi Kurdistan ). Other areas identified for cooperation were in technology, telecommunication, agriculture and infrastructure.

Recent changes in Turkey

Prime minister Erdogan’s AK party emerged from the ashes of 4 Islamic parties, banned earlier by the secular establishment led by the armed forces, but it now feels more secure. Taking advantage of Europe Union requirement to harmonise Turkey’s system to Copenhagen criteria, AKP has successfully sidelined the military, which had exercised power through its domination of the National Security Council (NSC). From a top policy making forum, NSC has now been reduced to an advisory role. Compared to earlier regimes perceived as corrupt, AKP has further strengthened itself by following transparent governance. It did very well in April municipal elections.

There is a clear erosion in the strategic relationship between Turkey and Israel which denotes a decline of the Turkish military in politics, said Amnon Barzilie in Haa’rez. A decision to put Turkey on a course towards EU membership would strengthen Erdogan, and weaken the military, according to Israeli Defense Ministry. EU membership would mean that the Turkish government would wield all its influence to make arms deals with EU countries instead of Israel.

Since 1996, when the strategic dialogue between Israel and Turkey began, numerous deals were signed with the Israeli arms industry in order to "punish" EU countries, which refused EU membership to Turkey, the Israeli defense establishment says. In December, the heads of the EU will decide on a date for Turkey to begin accession talks. While full membership is unlikely soon, some via media would be found with Turkey coming closer to EU policies

According to this analysis a EU decision to delay membership for Turkey would strengthen the Turkish military which could even depose Erdogan and call for fresh elections.  One of the first moves would then be a large arms deal with Israel. Now, the Turkish military has no choice but to sit tight.  Erdogan's harsh criticism of Israel's actions in the territories was a powerful expression of that change. But Turkey still looks at Israel as its partner in this part of the world and, therefore, where security and economic interests are concerned, there would be no change for the worse.  Israeli Defense analysts noted that the U.S. sees strategic importance in Turkey's joining the EU, as it regards Turkey as a model to prove that there is no contradiction between a Muslim state and a democratic one.

Dr. Alon Liel, chairman of the Turkey-Israel Chamber! of Commerce believed that the Turkish army is getting weaker, but that the Defense Ministry is suffering from fixed ideas and indifference. "It's true that in the short term Turkey's entrance into the EU will harm arms sales to Israel but the implications for the Middle East will be so dramatic that in the final analysis it will work to benefit Israel," Liel said. This is a farfetched analysis.

Without question, the Iraq war and, in particular, the developments in northern Iraq have kindled a rapprochement between Turkey and Iran and Turkey and Syria in spite of US opposition. Turkey now pursues a strategy of strengthening its ties with the countries in the region. Since AKP’s coming to power two years ago, Turkey has strengthened relations with other eastern countries, while making all efforts to fulfill Copenhagen criteria to join EU. EU countries to some extent, are trying to maintain their relationship with Tehran and Damascus. A Turkish diplomat said that this should be evaluated, not as opposition to the United States, but as a result of the recent developments.

India- Israel relations;

Of course relations between India and Israel would now remain unobtrusive and in low key. Even the Bhartiya Janta party led Indian government had balanced Sharon’s September visit last year by receiving a week earlier Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Sha’ath as President Yasser Arafat was under siege. Two days before the Sharon’s visit a senior Indian official said, “We accept and recognize Yasser Arafat as the President of Palestine.” 

There were many write ups against Sharon’ visit and his policies in Indian media. Opposition parties from the left of the centre i.e. the communist parties; the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (S) participated in protests against the visit. The Congress party, then in opposition, did not join in the protests but made it clear that the party’s position of supporting the Palestine cause and an independent state of Palestine remained undiluted. 

US-Israeli-Indian axis

The idea of so called tripartite US-Israeli –Indian axis was mooted after the September 11 attacks on USA and was publicly broached by India’s national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra in Washington at the annual meeting of the American Jewish Committee, where many American congressmen were also present.  After emphasizing the similarities between the three countries, he said: "India, the US and Israel have some fundamental similarities.  We are all democracies, sharing a common vision of pluralism, tolerance and equal opportunity.  Stronger India-US relations and India-Israel relations have (therefore) a natural logic".  He then called for the establishment of a US-Israel-India axis to fight "the menace of global terrorism" by military means, i.e. "fight terror with terror". 

The proposal was warmly welcomed by US officials and pro-Israeli lobby. Jews and Indian Americans also came together in USA. Despite their obvious differences, the alliance has the potential to increase the clout of the two communities which are about 5.2 million Jews and 1.8 million Indians, but highly educated, affluent and attached to democratic homelands facing what they increasingly view as a common enemy. But how much influence it has exercised on USA on India’s core problem of cross border terrorism!   

Ed Blanche wrote in Beirut’s “The Daily Star “ on July 17,” In India, the demise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in parliamentary elections in May was seen as potentially major setback for Israel's plans for extending its influence into the subcontinent to help contain Pakistan's nuclear and ballistic missile programs and into the energy-rich Muslim republics of Central Asia in conjunction with the Americans.

The BJP had become a major buyer of Israeli arms and counter-intelligence expertise and had forged unprecedented ties with the Jewish state. The new government under the Congress Party, which throughout the Cold War was staunchly pro-Arab and has said it will take a more even-handed approach to the Middle East, is not expected to be so pro-Israel. The new government unveiled its policy road map on May 27, which said that India would remain committed to the cause of a Palestinian homeland and that new impetus would be given to diplomatic and economic relations with Arab states.

A recent scandal in India's premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), in which a senior officer recruited by the CIA defected as security authorities closed in on him, has raised fears that the US and Israeli intelligence services have penetrated India's intelligence establishment. 

Asian intelligence sources told The Daily Star that Israel's Mossad, as well as the CIA, sought to recruit Indian intelligence operatives attending seminars in Israel in recent years and apparently succeeded in some cases. All this is likely to further damage Israel-India relations. 

US and Israeli analysts believe that the Congress Party, which restored relations with Israel in 1992, will issue some tough statements, "then things will settle down." But even the Americans are bracing for some policy shifts by the Congress-led government in New Delhi, which relies on the support of leftists, who oppose proximity to the US and the occupation of Iraq, to survive. Some US officials in Washington, along with Jewish organizations, are deeply concerned about a rupture in Indian-Israeli relations that were enthusiastically supported by the Bush administration, especially the hawks in the P! entagon, in part to help counterbalance China, America's emerging strategic rival.

There is no expectation at this time that either Ankara or New Delhi plan to sever relations with Israel. But it is clear that their relationships with the Jewish state are becoming more hard-headed, particularly because of Israeli heavy-handedness with the Palestinians and because of Iraq. Whether this will result in reining in Sharon remains to be seen, but some big changes may be in the offing.” 


And if US can not enforce its will, how can Israel hope to shape the region.  Disruption and chaos, yes . And if US were forced to withdraw even with a face saving solution with help from international community, it might then look for a scapegoat.

If Israel wants to play a role in creating an independent Kurdistan, it would become a willing tool in the regional balance at US behest. But such a development would be inimical to Turkey and would not be accepted by it. By now it should be clear that the developments in Iraq would be determined by the growing insurgency now blossoming into full-fledged resistance for removing US occupation and for freedom. Certainly Bush administration and even those opposing it now in USA can see the strength, depth and resilience of Iraqis who refuse to be subjugated. How would the dice roll for Iraqi Kurds is difficult to predict. But a break up of Iraq would have unforeseen consequences even beyond the region. The struggle has only begun in full earnest.

With a stock of nearly 100 nuclear bombs as reported in the media, Egypt shackled and thus neutralized and with a US veto on demand, Israel has shown itself as a wild and irresponsible state in the region, bent upon creating chaos.

(K Gajendra Singh, served as Indian Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan in 1992-96. Prior to that, he served as ambassador to Jordan (during the 1990-91 Gulf war), Romania and Senegal.  He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies.  The views expressed here are his own.-