Friends No More? Why Turkey and Israel Have Fallen Out

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Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Turkish naval ships off the shore of the Israeli city of Haifa are seen during a joint U.S., Israeli and Turkish military exercise on Aug. 19, 2008

In the cauldron of Middle East politics, the unlikely alliance between Turkey and Israel often stood out. Seemingly impervious to Arab opposition and the tracts of disputed land lying between them, the two countries had over the past decade traded intelligence, struck billion-dollar arms deals and hosted each other's militaries for training sessions. Even when Turkish leaders occasionally railed against Israel's policies toward the Palestinians, military cooperation continued unhindered behind the scenes, anchored by Washington across the Atlantic.

But the relationship has officially soured. On Oct. 9, Turkey decided to exclude Israel's air force from participating in a routine NATO war-games exercise, code-named Anatolian Eagle, to be held just days later in the Turkish city of Konya. War games involving multiple countries take months to organize, and the last-minute decision was clearly unexpected. The U.S. and Italy pulled out shortly after they heard about the snub, with Washington calling the move by Ankara "inappropriate." Turkey's reason for barring Israel? Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country "was showing its sensitivity." "We hope that the situation in Gaza will be improved, that the situation will be back to the diplomatic track," he said.

The friction is the latest in a relationship that has been worsening since last December, when Turkey — predominantly Muslim but officially secular — condemned Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip that left 1,500 Palestinians dead. In January, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres at a conference in Davos, Switzerland. Wagging his finger at Peres, an emotional Erdogan accused him of "murdering children on beaches" — an outburst that made Erdogan a hero on streets across the Arab world. "If bilateral relations between Turkey and Israel touched bottom after that incident, the current crisis shows that they are to remain there for some time to come," says Ilker Ayturk, a political science professor at Bilkent University in Ankara.

Another incident occurred at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City in September, when Erdogan was the only world leader to allude to Gaza in his speech. He also told reporters that "there should be accountability for anyone guilty of war crimes in Gaza." Days earlier, Davutoglu had canceled a trip to Israel after being refused permission to visit the Gaza Strip. "Not being allowed to visit Gaza was the last straw," says Sahin Alpay, a political science professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. "That, combined with the Gaza attacks last year and the [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu government's refusal to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank — they all added up."

The two countries have sparred before, but Turkish criticism of Israel has grown more forceful since Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. For decades Turkey was obsessed with Europe (despite a lukewarm reception) and all too keen to comply with the official NATO line, but in recent years it has started to look east, cultivating a role as a regional superpower. From Syria to Iran, the government has aggressively pursued closer ties with its neighbors. Amid the latest spat with Israel, Turkey signed a historic peace accord with its age-old foe Armenia and sent a 10-Minister delegation to Syria to negotiate the lifting of visa requirements for tourists traveling between the two countries.

What sets the war-games snub apart from other recent disputes is that for the first time, military relations between the two countries have taken a hit. This is a result of the Turkish government's having increased its control over the country's powerful generals in a bitter — and ongoing — seven-year power struggle. "Until very recently, it was the upper echelons of the Turkish military who determined the scope and pace of the strategic relationship between Israel and Turkey," Ayturk says. "What we are witnessing is the chief of staff allowing, willy-nilly, Erdogan to take the initiative. They are acquiescing in a 'political' decision."

On a popular level, almost as worrying as the political brinksmanship being played out between Turkey and Israel is the speed with which official hostility has trickled down to the streets. Visitors from Israel to Turkey — formerly the second most popular travel destination for Israelis after the U.S. — have fallen 47% since January, compared with the same period last year. The Turkish government has also been less than careful in fanning the flames of anti-Semitism. Erdogan recently exhorted university students to take a page from "the Jews," whom, he said, "invent things and then sit back and make money off those inventions." Innocuously meant, perhaps, but dangerous nonetheless, particularly as Turkey is home to a Jewish minority.

Pragmatism is still likely to keep the crisis in check. Israel is involved in two major defense projects in Turkey that are worth more than $1 billion, and the prickly issue of Iran's nuclear program looms larger than anything else in the region. But the latest dispute signals that it is no longer business as usual between the two erstwhile friends.