WASHINGTON – Turkey took a small step toward Israel in December when it dropped
its opposition to Israeli participation as a partner nation in certain NATO
activities planned for 2013.
Israel interpreted the move as an unspoken
quid pro quo, coming as it did at the same time Turkey, a NATO member state, was
asking the military alliance to station Patriot missile batteries along its
border to defend it against Syrian violence.
NATO, a consensus-based
organization, has been frustrated with Turkish obstruction of Israeli
participation since relations between the two Mediterranean countries broke down
in 2010 and has long been urging them to reconcile.
Neither Turkey nor
NATO has confirmed that Ankara’s easing of its objection to Israel’s inclusion
in 2013 NATO activities – which consist of conferences, courses and seminars –
was a condition for approval of the Patriot missile deployment.
whether that easing was part of a quid pro quo or not, it is consistent with
other recent overtures toward Israel. These overtures, coupled with Turkey’s
request for NATO military assistance – complete with the stationing of Western
forces on Turkish soil to operate the Patriot batteries – indicate Ankara is
moving back toward the Western orbit after years of distancing
Since the Islamist AKP came to power a decade ago, Turkey has
pursued a policy of “zero problems with neighbors” that precipitated a Turkish
reorientation toward the East, where it improved its relationships with Syria,
Kurdistan and other former adversaries as part of a bid to become a regional
powerbroker and even a hegemon. It was under this banner that the country
facilitated indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel in 2008.
as Turkey nurtured ties with other Islamist parties such as Hamas in Gaza, the
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and even the Iranian leadership, it began to
disassociate itself from Israel.
Israeli-Turkish ties seriously
deteriorated when an Israeli strike on Gaza to eliminate rocket fire on the
South ended the negotiations with Syria, provoking Turkish ire, and then
ruptured in 2010 when a Turkish-flagged ship tried to break the Gaza blockade
and Israeli commandoes used force to stop it, resulting in the death of nine
“If you want to be the leader of the Arab and Muslim
world, good relations with Israel is not necessarily the ticket you want to run
on,” points out Dan Arbell, who served on Israel’s team during negotiations with
Syria and is now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in
Turkey’s strategic approach to the region, however, suffered
a major blow amidst the upheaval of the Arab Spring.
Syria returned to
its historic antagonism, even letting a few stray shells ostensibly aimed at
opposition fighters land in Turkish territory this fall, and Egypt’s emboldened
Muslim Brotherhood, rather than the AKP, was the party to lead November’s
cease-fire talks between Israel and Hamas.
Around that time, reports
emerged of two rare rounds of conversations between Israeli and Turkish
officials, which dealt with Gaza but also touched on the relationship between
the two nations.
Arbell says the conversations stemmed from an emerging
understanding on the part of Turkey that shutting out Israel was damaging its
“There are many similar interests and a similar view about
what should be done in Syria,” he says, mentioning a shared aversion to regional
instability and massive numbers of refugees flowing over the Syrian border. “A
lack of dialogue between Turkey and Israel was seen as hurting those
When Syrian mortars started landing in Turkey, the government
saw that its own security in the region could be at stake.
Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute
for Near East Policy, says Turkey realized “it cannot be alone in this
neighborhood and needs friends and allies.”
And so, he says, “NATO has
come forth to the rescue as Turkey’s indispensable ally.”
embrace of NATO, which Cagaptay described as stronger than at any point in the
last 10 years, has been at the popular as well as governmental
Despite the presence of American and European troops, Cagaptay
notes, “Not a person has made an objection.”
Still, these changes don’t
mean that Turkey has reverted to its pre-AKP posture; ties with Israel remain
deeply strained and the move toward the West hasn’t been accompanied by a
rejection of the East.
Israeli officials say even at NATO the new Turkish
stance “is not a total solution,” as Ankara continues to oppose upgrades in
Israel’s status and other more substantial actions within the
Turkish diplomatic sources, meanwhile, say that, “Turkey’s
position did not change on this matter.”
Arbell characterizes the shift
as a “refocus or a calibration,” since Turkey feels it has rotated its
orientation too much and wants to put itself firmly in the camps of both the
East and the West, but not sacrifice the former for the latter.
Turkey more in the framework of a Western democratic context, rather than that
of leaders such as [Syrian President Bashar] Assad or [Iranian President
Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad or others, so perhaps it makes it easier to deal with
Turkey,” Arbell says. “The dialogue has broadened and deepened, but we’re not