Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan did not mince words in his recent condemnations of Israel, Ankara’s closest military ally after the United States. Calling Israel a “terrorist state,” Edrogan vented his disapproval of Israel’s raids last month of Gaza City’s Zeitoun district and the south Gazan town of Rafah by recalling Turkey’s ambassador and consul-general from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for consultations in Ankara. Still, foreign minister Abdullah Gul insisted there was no crisis in relations. Turkish media briefed by him and Turkish armed forces made a point of stressing that military ties were as good as ever.
However, the business-as-usual pose broke down Thursday, June 24, when Israel’s national carrier El Al abruptly cancelled all flights to Turkey, leaving hundreds of Israeli vacationers stranded in Turkish resorts and thousands more unable to reach their favorite holiday destinations – 320,000 Israelis visited Turkey in 2003.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report three reasons for this abrupt step:
A recent aviation crisis which erupted when Turkish authorities clamped restrictions on Israeli air marshals guarding the many incoming flights from Israel.
Fear that al Qaeda-affiliated Turkish terrorists may attack Israeli targets or locations frequented by Israeli holidaymakers on or around the June 28-29 NATO summit in Istanbul. World leaders begin arriving on Friday, June 25. Thursday, saw terrorist strikes in Istanbul and Ankara.
Turkish-Israel relations have been severely strained since Erdogan began slamming Israel’s counter-terror operations against Palestinians. Information received in Jerusalem indicates the Turkish prime minister is bending over backwards to curry favor with the Arab and Muslim world at Israel’s expense while playing host to US and NATO leaders.
Israeli security circles are anxious that Turkish authorities may go so far as to detain Israeli visitors on trumped-up charges.
An earlier straw caught in this ill wind was an article in The New Yorker magazine due out on June 28 and released this week. Under the caption “Plan B, Israel explores its options,” investigative journalist Seymour Hersh described Israel as planting hundreds of Mossad agents in northern Iraq with Kurdish consent – and behind Turkey’s back – to gather intelligence on Iran, notably on its nuclear program. Hersh claimed the Israelis had managed to crack the Iranian intelligence code and monitor Iranian transmissions, including signals to its agents in Iraq. The report also maintained that Israel, having despaired of a US victory against Iraqi guerrillas, had decided to prepare for an American pullout by establishing its own intelligence network among Iraqi Kurds. Ankara continued to voice outrage over Israel’s putative subterfuge in the face of determined Israeli denials. Israeli media gave the incident scant coverage although CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed Hersh on his Late Edition program last Sunday.
Eventually, Turkey grudgingly came round to accepting Israel’s denials, but the damage was done. Suspicion tainted Ankara’s relations with Jerusalem and Washington. However, instead of restoring confidence, Erdogan was at pains to play up the ill will.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Ankara his motivation as focused on domestic politics rather than foreign relations. He sought to –
Gauge how far the civilian government can strain relations with Israel before being brought up short by Turkey’s powerful generals.
Exploit the crisis with Israel as an indirect pretext for downgrading Turkey’s political and military ties with the United States.
He believes that the strength of Turkey’s high military command relies heavily on its cooperative relations with Israel and the United States. Therefore scaling those relations down ought to undercut the generals’ political clout and correspondingly enhance that of the Erdogan government.
Appreciation of the Turkish prime minister’s motivations in seizing on The New Yorker story makes its source especially interesting. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Kurdistan, Jerusalem and Washington carried out their own investigation and discovered the information came from foreign minister Gul and his staff, who urged the writer to go into print with our without further corroboration. To Hersh’s credit, let it be said that he visited Israel and Kurdistan in search of verification.
In Israel, his long-standing intelligence contacts assured him the story was false. He got the same message from Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani. We also learned that the correspondent met Bush and Clinton administration officials who worked the Iraqi, Kurdish and Israeli scenes. They warned him Gul’s information was not supported by fact. Nonetheless, Hersh decided to publish.
Top Israeli intelligence officials have told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that, not only was the information contained in the article wrong, but it was presented in a way to cause most damage to US-Israeli relations as well as to Israel’s connections with Turkish military officers.
They state emphatically that Israel is running no undercover operations in northern Iraq behind Turkey’s back. Quite the opposite; Israel is in full compliance with a secret agreement reached between Israeli and Turkish secret services, including Turkish military intelligence, under which no Israeli, whether undercover or civilian, goes into Iraqi Kurdistan without prior notice to Ankara, which is empowered to veto all such visits.
Talabani and Barzani know about this arrangement and accept it.
Above all, Israel never violated the secret accord. No Israeli has set foot in Kurdistan without Turkey’s knowledge either before the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq or since. One source branded the Turkish leak alleging the presence of hundreds of Mossad agents as “a deliberate lie.”
Our sources in Washington and Jerusalem see a deeper and more ambitious game behind the Turkish prime minister’s blatant anti-Israel stance and its short-term motives.
Erdogan and Gul have embarked on an ambitious process to re-orient Ankara in the Arab-Muslim orbit after half a century as a trusted American ally. They attached high importance to the election for the first time of a Turk, Ekmeloeddin Ihsanoglu, as president of the Islamic Conference when it convened in Istanbul in mid-June. The New Yorker article misattributes to Israel the Erdogan-Gul evaluation of the US predicament in Iraq. In fact, this estimate has given rise to the policy shift in Ankara and the Turkish leaders’ decision to turn their country full-face towards the Arab world and distance it from the Bush administration’s pathway of democracy for the Middle East. Their reward: despite initial resistance from many Islamic Conference members, Ihsanoglu, head of an Istanbul institute for the Study of Muslim Culture and Art, won a five-year term as conference president. For centuries, Istanbul was the capital of a world empire. Why not again?
In view of this shift in orientation, Erdogan feels the need to offset his hosting of President George W. Bush at the June 28-29 NATO summit in Istanbul. His welcome will therefore be friendly but cool, his public appearances with the US president clearly counterbalanced for the benefit of Muslim and Arab public opinion by his tough diatribes against Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Multi-dimensional strategic, military and intelligence relations between Turkey and Israel go forward on an apparently separate plane from such visionary politics. And until Thursday, June 24, Israeli tourists continued to flock to favorite Turkish resorts undeterred by terrorist threats or by being subjected to the ire of the men in Ankara.
Israeli officials tell DEBKA-Net-Weekly they will not fall into the trap Erdogan and Gul are setting at their feet. They are waiting to see how the Turkish military stands up to the challenge. Save for the United States, Israel has no closer military and intelligence ally. Israeli fighter squadrons are stationed in Turkey and Israeli reconnaissance planes take off from Turkish bases to overfly Syria and Iran. Israeli warships use Turkish military ports and carry out joint missions with the Turkish navy in the Mediterranean, including operations against al Qaeda boats. Israeli armored forces carry out maneuvers in Turkish bases. Turkish fighter pilots receive advanced training in their own aircraft in Israeli airspace. Israeli special operations forces train with their Turkish counterparts in Israel and in Turkey.
Over the past months, Turkey and Israel have been in intensive discussions on a cooperative effort to set up joint emergency ammunition and military equipment storage systems in both countries. The underlying concept is that if one country comes under attack, it can draw on emergency stores in the second. Furthermore, if need be, Turkish tank crews will be able to make use of Israeli tanks stored in Turkey and Israeli crews could travel to Turkey and use their own tanks to fight alongside their Turkish allies.
The same would hold true if Israel came under attack.
The basic premise is that the two countries face different military threats and a simultaneous attack against both is improbable.
Israel’s military industry, including its aircraft sector, has long supplied state of the art equipment to the Turkish armed forces. The connection is so strong that Israel Military Industries does not have to bid publicly for Turkish contracts.
Israeli sources say that in the end it will be up to Turkey’s generals, not Jerusalem, to repel the attack launched by Erdogan and Gul on Israeli-Turkish relations.