Thousands of protestors in Turkey.
(photo credit: AP)
For years, the Israeli public has heard about the axis of evil that surrounds the country, led by Iran and continuing into Syria, Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.
But what would happen one day if Turkey, a country that sits to Israel’s northwest, joined this axis? What would be the significance for Israel, and how would it fare militarily in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood?
Signs of Turkey’s shift to the radical axis were apparent with the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, as prime minister in 2003. With time, Erdogan showed his true colors as a radical Islamist.
In January 2009, for example, he stormed off a stage he shared
with President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos over Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, which had just come to an end. Since then, the radical rhetoric has only escalated. On Tuesday, in response to the navy’s botched Gaza flotilla operation, Erdogan said that Israel had carried out a “bloody massacre.”
Military ties between Israel and Turkey have been strong for years.
Both countries have Western militaries, and Turkey is a member of NATO.
The militaries have held countless joint military exercises, but those,
too, came to an end last year when Turkey kicked Israel out of a
planned international air force exercise.
From an Israeli defense perspective, ties with Turkey, despite
Erdogan’s clear hatred of the Jewish state, are of strategic
importance. If Israel were to cut off the ties, one senior defense
official said on Wednesday, it could push Turkey further into Iranian
and Syrian hands.
Unfortunately, this is already happening: In late April, Turkey and Syria held joint military exercises.
Israel, for its part, tries hard to make a distinction between the
Turkish military and government. One official said that Israel needed
to hope that Erdogan was a “passing phenomenon” and that once he left
office, relations would be back on track.
There are suspicions that the Turkish government was involved in
organizing the flotilla to Gaza that the Israel Navy stopped on Monday.
There are now fears in the IDF that the Turkish government will send
its navy to accompany future flotillas to Gaza. This would pose a
serious military and diplomatic challenge.
While Israelis tend to think of Turkey in relation to themselves, other
Western bodies, such as the US and the EU, have also experienced
deteriorating ties under Erdogan.
While the possibility that Turkey will one day turn into an enemy of
Israel today appears far-fetched – the country’s membership in NATO is
a definite constraint – there are fears in Israel that Turkey is on its
way to becoming the next Iran, a country with which Israel had strong
military and diplomatic ties up until the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Now Iran is Israel’s greatest enemy.
As a result, Israel is being cautious and is not selling Turkey advanced military platforms anymore.
A similar concern exists with regard to Egypt the day after President
Hosni Mubarak. If both these countries turn more radical, it is
possible that their Western militaries will, too.
The effect on the IDF will be immediate. To counter the current axis of
evil plus Turkey and Egypt, it will need hundreds more fighter jets,
attack helicopters and tanks and additional mobilized divisions. That
is why it is so important to keep Turkey to the West.