Politics & Policy

The End of The Affair?

Israel and Turkey head for divorce.

Israel’s Sharon government is currently embroiled in a heated internal debate over the merits of “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip. But another, equally far-reaching crisis may be brewing on the horizon.

Since their start in the early 1990s, the military and defense ties between Ankara and Jerusalem have evolved into one of the Middle East’s most important geopolitical alliances. But now, that strategic partnership has begun showing signs of serious strain. Angered by Israel’s recent offensive against the Hamas terrorist organization, eager to boost ties with Europe and new regional allies, and responding to the demands of its core Islamist constituency, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have begun a unilateral rollback of strategic cooperation with Jerusalem.

Just months after its conclusion, the future of a long-awaited accord to bring Turkish water to Israel is in question. Disputes over the projected route of the pipeline have created friction between the two countries, and rumors now abound that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) has cancelled the arrangement outright–dealing a major blow to Israel’s already-strained hydrological resources, which would have received 15 million cubic meters of water annually from Turkey’s Manavgat River under the agreement.

At the same time, Ankara is said to have instituted a rollback of military and defense contacts with Jerusalem, including a freeze on Israeli participation in tenders for the purchase of helicopters, remote piloted aircraft and tanks–all ostensibly as part of a new drive for domestic military manufacturing.

These moves have been mirrored on the diplomatic front. In late May, in yet another indication of the new tenor of ties between the two countries, the Turkish government signaled that it might temporarily recall its ambassador for consultations–a threat it has since followed through on. Prime Minister Erdogan, meanwhile, has publicly snubbed Israel, rejecting a formal invitation to visit the Jewish state in recent meetings with Israeli Infrastructure Minister Joseph Paritzky, and even going so far as equating Israel’s actions in Palestinian-controlled Rafah to “state terrorism.”

This abrupt chill is indicative of a larger reorientation underway in Ankara. Since coming to power in late 2002, the Islamist AKP has put a premium on charting an “independent” foreign-policy course. In practice, this has brought Ankara closer to historic regional rivals like Syria and Iran while cooling its relationships with both Jerusalem and Washington. At the same time, Turkish officials have begun concerted efforts to more closely align their country’s foreign policy with Europe.

What’s more, Turkish policymakers are now hard at work trying to cement these policy shifts. In recent weeks, the AKP has launched a frontal assault on its chief domestic rival–the country’s powerful military. As part of constitutional reforms intended to harmonize its legal system with European standards, Turkey’s parliament on May 7 overwhelmingly approved a raft of laws substantially trimming the military’s power. They include the removal of military officials from national broadcasting and education oversight committees, the elimination of state security courts previously used to try political crimes, and stripping the military of its budgetary autonomy, making its previously independent national-security planning subject to parliamentary oversight and review. And, in a critical development, the post of General Secretary within Turkey’s influential national-security council (the Milli Guvenlik Kurulu, or MGK), can from now on be occupied a civilian, paving the way for a greater governmental hand in the composition of the country’s military leadership.

The AKP has been quick to bill the move as an effort to “strengthen democracy” ahead of the European Union’s December meeting–at which European capitals will decide whether to open accession talks with Ankara. But the Turkish military has justifiably expressed worries over the AKP’s power grab and its implications for the direction of Turkish foreign policy.

The effects of this erosion of power are already being felt. Turkey’s military establishment, the traditional guardian of Mustafa Kemal Attaturk’s secularist legacy, has long been the main driver of strategic ties with Jerusalem. Its progressive loss of control over the country’s security policy has therefore called into question the durability of Israel’s most important regional alliance.

Israeli policymakers, dazed by the rapid turnaround in the strategic partnership, are now scrambling to mend fences. But the Israeli government’s ability to alter this trend is limited; the health of Israeli-Turkish ties remains largely dependent on the political priorities and foreign-policy trajectory of the AKP itself. And, at least for now, their future is uncertain, as Turkey continues to drift away from its traditional role of an independent, pro-Western partner in the Middle East.

Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

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