Turkish-Jewish Community

The Region: Turkey is Israel's best neighbor

Author: Barry Rubin

Published in Jerusalem Post - July 11, 2001

Nowadays, when friends are hard to find, the continuing close relations between Israel and Turkey are all the more remarkable, and welcome.

Currently the two countries do a record $1.1 billion trade a year in non-military items. In addition, 330,000 Israeli tourists annually spend about $250 million in Turkey. Moreover, Israeli companies are on the verge of making very large-scale investments for a massive development project in southeastern Turkey; plus the impending deal to import Turkish water, plus the commerce in military equipment.

Last month, the two countries cooperated with the United States in Anatolian Eagle, a major two-week military exercise in Turkey that went beyond the limited, rescue-oriented activities of the past.

The F-16s used by all three countries practiced air-to-air combat, ground attacks and aerial refueling.

So when retiring Israeli Ambassador Uri Bar-Nir recently called Turkey the second-most important country for Israel in the world (after the US), he wasn't exaggerating.

What is especially significant - and has largely gone unnoticed - is that Arab states have given up attacking Turkish-Israeli cooperation. Anyone who understands how international affairs work must comprehend that these previous Arab complaints were not reasons to limit the coalition, but proofs of its effectiveness.

After all, if Syria or other countries don't like that alignment they are worried because it limits their own ability to pressure or commit aggression against Turkey or Israel. At the last Arab and Islamic summits, however, there was no longer any talk about Turkish-Israeli cooperation. On the contrary, at the Islamic summits Arab diplomats asked Turkey to use its influence on Israel to ease the current crisis.

Moreover, at Israel's request, Turkey tried to play a constructive role in easing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Thus, the Turkish-Israeli relationship has continued to develop beyond the high levels reached previously. Especially significant is the fact that the number of Turkish institutions advocating and involved in cooperation has spread far beyond the armed forces, which initiated the alignment.

In short, this relationship is as long-term and stable as any such bond in the world. It is based on national interests, of course, particularly concerns about radical states and forces in the Middle East. Yet there is also a cultural and social element, the link between two democratic states with unique peoples who are not completely accepted in either the Middle East or Europe.

While there are differences in interests and perceptions, these remain quite bridgeable. In contrast to Israel's situation, Turkey would like more trade with Iran and Iraq, meaning fewer sanctions against those countries. Still, like Israel, Turkey is worried about the intentions of these militant regimes and their efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and more effective missiles.

Indeed, Turkey's growing interest in obtaining the means to defend itself against missiles - an area where Israel is a world leader - is a new dimension in the relationship.

Are there any negative signs? Not many. Islamist sectors and sensationalist newspapers in Turkey keep up anti-Israel campaigns. They spread false stories that Israel wants an anti-Turkish Kurdish state in northern Iraq, as well as the usual propaganda over the current situation.

Certainly, this does have an effect on public opinion, but it is a limited one and does not appear to be growing. Arab attempts to intimidate Turkey have often boomeranged, making Turks patriotically reject what they see as insults and bullying attempts. The whole question of Islamist movements in Turkey must be put into perspective. While the Islamist party did briefly lead a government coalition, its term in office was a disaster. The army's opposition influenced many Turkish voters to abandon the party, which became deeply divided. Recently, the successor party was also banned, and there is a chance of either a split or the triumph of a moderate faction. The Islamists are less likely to take over Turkey than an ultra-Orthodox religious party is to seize power in Tel Aviv.

One important element in the relationship is the US role. Continued American support for two such reliable, democratic allies is vital to the protection of US interests. Equally, as American policymakers recognize, fostering cooperation among these allies even further enhances regional stability and US leverage in the area.

Arguably, American Jewish groups have played a large and more productive role on this front than in any other issue for Israeli foreign policy. Individual Jewish-Americans have also played a prominent role in supporting Turkey within the US government and Congress.

Finally, the Greek-Turkish detente - one of the most happy recent developments in international affairs - means a good Turkish-Israel relationship is not perceived as threatening in Athens. On the contrary, Greece has seen this alignment as an example, and has been energetically seeking to improve its own connections with Israel.

There is still much to be done, especially on the people-to-people level, though tourism has often been a good first step. Within Israel, there needs to be far more comprehension of Turkey, dispelling negative stereotypes and fostering understanding of our best "neighbor."

Still, it is astonishing to remember that the number of Turkic people in the greater Middle East equals the number of Arabs. Remember that millions of ethnic Turks live in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kirgizistan. It is no coincidence that these countries - all formerly parts of the USSR - have the best relations with Israel of any "Muslim" countries in the world.

Even 20% of Iran's population is Turkic. While differing in language and identity, all these communities have strong links.

This reality should be reflected in our schools, media and psychology. How much do Israelis know about Turkey? How many people in Israel study Turkish? How many courses are there on Turkey in universities? How much time does the Israeli media spend on that country?

These issues require serious consideration and change.