Israeli military and intelligence assessments see Turkey as growing threat

Turkey emerges as a crisis-addicted adversary to Israel, the UAE and Greece in recent meetings with Hamas and threats against Athens and Abu Dhabi.

NEIGHBORHOOD GUARD members await the arrival of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a 2017 Istanbul ceremony. Posters of Erdogan (right) and modern Turkey’s founder Ataturk seen in background (photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
NEIGHBORHOOD GUARD members await the arrival of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a 2017 Istanbul ceremony. Posters of Erdogan (right) and modern Turkey’s founder Ataturk seen in background
(photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
While Israelis have been celebrating the new potential ties with the United Arab Emirates, the Turkish ruling party is angling to become a much larger challenge to the Jewish state in the coming years.
Ankara’s current regime under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been increasingly hostile to Israel for the last decade, comparing the country to Nazi Germany and vowing to “liberate” al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Reports now indicate that intelligence and military assessments in Israel see Ankara as a challenge and threat.
A recent article in The Times said Mossad head Yossi Cohen “has been talking secretly with fellow spooks in the Gulf states for years.” While he has discussed the Iran threat, another threat is looming, the article noted.
“There was one encounter about 20 months ago when he let slip another agenda: ‘Iranian power is fragile, but the real threat is from Turkey,’” he reportedly told spymasters from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
Israel views Ankara’s strategic goals as a challenge. In January, Israel’s annual assessment conducted by the IDF noted that Turkey has also become a “challenge” for the first time. This appears to be the growing consensus in military and intelligence circles.
Turkey and Israel were once allies. Israel sold Turkey drones between 2005 and 2010 before relations soured and contracts ended. Turkey’s regime, which is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, became more supportive of Hamas in Gaza and also enabled the Mavi Marmara flotilla – outfitted by the Turkish IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation NGO – to sail for Gaza in May 2010. Diplomatic ties were severed after the Israeli raid on the ship and also the 2009 conflict in Gaza. They were restored in 2015.
NEVERTHELESS, Turkey continues to challenge Israel on a variety of fronts. Ankara has hosted Hamas, and the terrorist organization planned attacks on Israel from Turkey, The Telegraph reported last year. According to a new report, Turkey has granted citizenship to Hamas operatives. In November, Ankara signed a deal with the Tripoli-based government in Libya and has begun sending arms and Syrian mercenaries to Libya.
This was designed in part to stop an Israeli pipeline deal with Greece and Cyprus. That deal was signed in January and is moving forward. Turkey in turn harassed an Israeli research ship off Cyprus in December. Now it has sent its own research ship to waters between Cyprus and Greece along with a fleet of Turkish naval ships. Israel’s Image Sat International published images of the Turkish flotilla.
On the eve of the surprise announcement that Israel and the UAE would normalize relations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Greece’s foreign minister Israel stood by Greece in disputes with Turkey. This brings Israel into the alliance of states that oppose Ankara’s increasing aggression in the region.
In May, the UAE, France, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt condemned Turkey’s moves in the Mediterranean. Egypt warned Turkey against more advances in Libya, where Cairo backs the Benghazi-based government against Ankara’s mercenaries and allies in Tripoli. The conflict in Libya and Turkey’s hosting of Hamas leaders on August 22 are all linked because Turkey backs a regional religious agenda tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood often has been linked to extreme antisemitic views, and Ankara’s embrace of this network of religious extremism includes Turkey’s work with Qatar and Tripoli and attempts to establish bases in Somalia and elsewhere.
It is no surprise that the UAE and Egypt view the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group. Along with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, they all broke relations with Qatar in 2017, listing its support for extremist groups as one of the reasons.
PRO-ANKARA voices say the Gulf states that broke relations with Qatar are actually reactionary, authoritarian regimes, and Turkey is merely supporting “democratic” movements in the region. This goes back to a fundamental dispute at the heart of the Arab Spring revolutions. Turkey and Qatar backed the protests, but they ended up backing the far-right Islamist aspects of these groups.
This contest of authoritarianism pits Ankara’s version, where it is the largest jailer of journalists in the world, against a different authoritarianism in places such as Egypt and Iran. Ankara, for instance, tends to embrace other authoritarian regimes, whether Hamas, Iran, Russia or even the Belarus leader.
What does this mean for Israel? Turkey has sought to adopt the Palestinian cause the same way Iran has in recent decades. Turkey’s ruling party has invested heavily in religious education and religious edicts from its Religious Affairs Ministry.
For instance, in June, the ministry vowed to mobilize the “Islamic ummah” (community) against Israel. When Turkey changed Hagia Sophia into a mosque, it vowed to “liberate al-Aqsa.” This is similar to Iran’s al-Quds Day events that use symbolism from Jerusalem to argue that the Islamic Republic is leading “Muslims” from Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon to “liberate Palestine.”
For Ankara, this means the contest in the region is one that blends religion and militarist populism. For instance, Turkey hosted a Hamas delegation on Saturday with a terrorist wanted by the US, and Erdogan hosted Hamas last December and this February. The December trip was supposed to cement Hamas throughout the region and in Asia after Ismael Haniyeh, head of its “Political Bureau,” went to Malaysia.
A Hamas delegation met Malaysia’s defense minister in Qatar in January. That matters because Malaysia’s leader at the time was the openly antisemitic Mahathir Mohamed, known for having called on the Islamic world to mobilize against Israel in the early 2000s. A meeting in December between Turkey, Iran and Malaysia vowed to create an “Islamic” gold-trading method around US sanctions. It was linked to the Hamas trip as well.
It was in the context of the Hamas meetings with Turkey, Qatar, Iran and Malaysia in December that Turkey pressed ahead in the Mediterranean to challenge Israel, Greece, Turkey and the UAE. Since then, things have moved ahead rapidly as France and Cyprus have agreed to provide more defense cooperation, and Israel and the UAE normalized relations.
Turkey, trying to hedge its bets on NATO and the US with purchases of Russia’s S-400 system – and increasingly clashing with Washington over Syria policy – is pushing a new crisis every month.
UP UNTIL now, Turkey has not sought to worsen relations with Israel. Ankara did threaten to withdraw diplomats from the UAE over ties from Israel, and it has sought to highlight opposition to more Israeli deals in places such as Sudan.
Ankara’s goal in confronting Israel now consists of working with Hamas. It has also sought to adopt the cause of al-Aqsa alongside Iran. To undermine Israel’s role in Jerusalem, Turkey is investing in east Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Municipality removed a plaque put up illegally by a pro-Ankara organization in east Jerusalem in July.
In May, there were rumors that Turkey might seek reconciliation with Israel; an El Al flight landed in Turkey for the first time in 10 years. Reports also indicated Israel had learned from Turkey’s “defeat” of Hezbollah in fighting in Idlib in Syria.
But this reconciliation didn’t happen, and Ankara continued down the path of threatening to liberate al-Aqsa and continues to give Hamas a red carpet and rally anti-Israel groups across the region.
The end result of the recent year of Israel-Turkish relations has been a growing consensus that Turkey’s aggressive actions and challenges are helping to drive increasingly close relations between the UAE, Israel, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece.
Turkey is trying to adopt the Palestinian cause and to filter it through an Islamist-extremist lens linked to Hamas. It is encouraging a religious conflict against Israel, using rhetoric that has more in common with the last century of anti-Israel policies in the region.
The naval missions by Turkey seek to create tension at sea while the country also seeks an axis with Qatar, Malaysia, Hamas and Tripoli to grow its influence and use it against an array of states, including the US, Europe and NATO allies.