Analysis: Israel-Turkey Accord Will Not Signal Near-Term Revival of Defense Ties
Barbara Opall-Rome, Defense News
TEL AVIV — An agreement between Israel and Turkey, announced Monday to normalize ties after a six-year estrangement between the countries, is unlikely to trigger near-term resumption of defense trade or bilateral military cooperation.
On the contrary, officials and experts in Israel warn that strategic cooperation, if and when it resumes, will be focused on regional stability and safety measures to be conducted primarily in the context of the US-Israel or NATO alliance.
“This agreement does not confer a green light to restore the intimacy we once knew among our defense industries and military cadres, even if there was such a desire in Turkey, which is doubtful,” an Israeli official told Defense News, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The good relationship won’t return, at least not in the foreseeable future, for the simple reason that the Turkish security establishment that once saw itself as operating in harmony with Israel no longer exists,” said Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli major general and former Israeli national security adviser.
Eiland added that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “managed to purge or repress the vestiges of [Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk," the first president of the Turkish republic.
"We don’t have natural, like-minded friends there anymore,” he said.
In an interview Monday, Eiland said Erdogan’s policies in support of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State group are antagonistic toward Israel, and that it would be irresponsible to pursue meaningful intelligence, operational and technology transfer ties under the current regime in Ankara.
“By nature, this will be a very cold agreement; an agreement of convenience, but nothing of the deep dialogue and strategic partnership we once had,” he said.
Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli defense minister and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, said it was important for the two countries to normalize ties, but that resumption of security cooperation would have to evolve and be tested over time.
“There’s too much instability in the region for two major, regional powers to be in a state of dysfunction,” Mofaz told Defense News. “Having said that, we can’t rebuild too much too quickly. We need to take into account what could happen the next time a crisis erupts.”
In a Monday interview, Mofaz noted that as minister of defense from 2002-2006, he managed flourishing military-to-military and defense trade ties, which included Israeli upgrades of Turkish M60 main battle tanks. “I hope that level of cooperation may one day return, but we must be mindful of all the changes in Turkish policies over the past several years.”
Israel and Turkey initiated their strategic partnership in the mid-1990s, which grew to include front-line Israeli defense sales and routine aerial and naval exercises, both on a bilateral basis and in conjunction with the US armed forces.
By 2005, Turkey had become one of Israel’s largest defense export markets. Major programs included a $700 million upgrade to the Turkish Air Force’s F-4E Phantom fighters; a $668 million M60A1 tank upgrade for the Turkish Army; and sales of radar, electro-optical sensors, munitions, and command-and-control systems.
In November 2005, Israeli and Turkish partners dedicated a licensed production line for Turkish M60A1 tanks, and earlier that year Israel had begun to share satellite imagery with Ankara from its latest Ofeq-series spy satellites. During that time, the two countries were also heavily involved in discussions about possible sales of the US-Israel Arrow anti-tactical missile system — an initiative that never panned out due to opposition from Washington.
Yosi Ben-Hanan, a former director of defense exports and international cooperation at Israel’s Ministry of Defense, estimated that during peak years, Turkish defense procurement from Israel amounted to several hundred millions of dollars annually.
“During those peak years, from 1998 to 2005, we were clearly in a situation where Turkey had serious military modernization needs. They found important support from the Israeli defense industries while, at the same time, we had a cardinal interest in cultivating a type of alliance with an important Islamic state in our region,” Ben-Hanan said.
But today, given Turkey’s pro-Islamist policies and ongoing tension with Egypt, Jordan and many Arabian Gulf states, Ben-Hanan said it remained to be seen whether Israel and Turkey could come close to the ties they enjoyed more than a decade ago.
“It’s too early to tell what Turkey wants to achieve in this region and whether its interests are compatible with our own,” he said.
Bezhalel Machlis, president and CEO of Elbit Systems, hedged when asked in an interview last month if resumed defense trade to Turkey was part of his long-term business plan. “My answer is very simple: We are subordinate to the Ministry of Defense. … There is a very complex set of considerations, but it is up to the government of Israel, not me.”
He added: “We will be ready for whatever the government decides.”