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Alon Ben-Meir

Alon Ben-Meir

Posted: November 19, 2009 12:49 PM

An Alliance Central to Regional Stability

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When Turkey barred Israel from a joint military exercise earlier this October, there was a great deal of speculation about the seriousness of a rift between the two allies. Although the strategic relations between the two regional superpowers is critical to both nations it also transcends the bilateral benefits that Turkey and Israel individually derive from it, as their alliance is fundamental to the region's balance of power and political stability. Turkey's desire to further develop and sustain its leadership role in the region is directly linked to its ability to foster constructive relations with both Eastern and Western nations, including Israel which remains central to regional peace. The following four regional issues are integral to illustrate the significance of the Turkish-Israeli relationship:

The ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France plus Germany) have reached an impasse and it is unlikely now that Iran will concede on the nuclear issue through this channel. Turkey shares Israel's grave fears about Iran's nuclear agenda, and will undoubtedly support any peaceful efforts to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. But Turkey's close ties with Iran can undoubtedly be strategically important to the region. The improved political and economic ties between Tehran and Ankara can enhance the prospect of Turkey playing a mediating role to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community. There is no doubt that Turkey, as a predominantly Muslim state, is better received and will have far greater sway in Tehran than any Western nations. Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can meet face-to-face with Iran's supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei-who refuses to meet with Western officials-and address some of the security issues at the forefront of the regimes' foreign policy concerns. Turkey can also play the unofficial mediating role by speaking privately and directly to the Israelis, Iranians, Russians, Europeans and Americans. Turkey's own great trepidations about a nuclear Iran can be mitigated by its ability to offer its good offices to all sides in this conflict. To further augment Turkey's role, Ankara should be invited to join the P5+1 negotiating team and put a Muslim face at the negotiating table. Moreover, Turkey can offer a more palatable venue than Russia to process Iran's low grade uranium and convert it into nuclear rods for medical and other peaceful purposes. For all these reasons, the stronger the Turkish-Israeli and Turkish-Iranian relationships are, the more significant and positive role Ankara can play in becoming integral part of any solution to Iran's nuclear program.

In 2008 Turkey mediated admirably between Israel and Syria, and brought both parties to a near agreement, which is not a small feat in international diplomacy. For Turkey to seriously jeopardize its relations with Israel now would forsake a critically important leverage it has enjoyed with the West, as well as its centrality to regional peace. There are absolutely no inconsistencies or contradictions between having equally good relations between Turkey and Syria and Turkey and Israel. Being allies with Israel and Syria places Ankara in the enviable position to play a decisive role in any future talks between the two nations, as the solution to their conflict over the Golan Heights can be resolved only through negotiations, which President Bashar al-Assad knows only too well. In a recent interview, al-Assad urged Turkey to have solid relations with Israel if it wished to assist Damascus in mediated talks. Ankara would have no reason to abandon its efforts or down-grade its relations with Israel if it wishes to become the region's power-broker. Maintaining equally good relations with all of its neighbors is a prerequisite to Turkey's national aspirations that transcends the Middle East, as Turkey continues to eye European Union membership. The fact that the Netanyahu government wants to involve France in future negotiations with Syria should not preclude Turkey from future involvement, as Damascus insists on Ankara's continuing its mediating role at a minimum side-by-side Paris.

The hostile relations between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) offer another critical area where Turkey is uniquely positioned to play a most constructive role. The prospect of making any significant progress between Israel and the Palestinians ultimately depends on a political agreement that governs the relationship between Hamas and the PA. No negotiations between Israel and the PA alone will lead to a sustainable agreement without the full direct or indirect participation of Hamas in the political process. Turkey was the first country that offered Hamas official recognition more than three years ago by inviting its leader Khaled Mashaal to Ankara, and there still exists trusting relations between the two sides to this day. Notwithstanding the importance of Egypt's role in mediating between Hamas and the PA, here again, Turkey is in a position to augment Egypt's efforts, by helping Hamas and the PA to reach a political understanding or by participating unofficially in talks. Despite Israel's revulsion of Hamas as a terrorist organization, the Israeli government is interested in maintaining the calm along the Gaza borders which Hamas' political leaders also seem to be eager to maintain. By avoiding the official position of the Quartette, which would require Hamas first to recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept prior agreements before it could become a party to the negotiating process; Turkey can help changing the rules of engagement. Turkey should capitalize on the current lull in violence and try to persuade Hamas to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative, which would allow the organization to fall in line with the rest of the Arab states.

The recent joint search and rescue military drill between Israel, Jordan, and Turkey was a much needed move as Turkey tries to rectify any impressions of a strained relationship with Israel. As long as military capability and performance matter in international diplomacy, Turkey has no military partner in the Middle East that can rival Israel now or in the future. Turkey's military prowess and its viability will depend on its continued advancement to make it indispensible not only for regional stability but for playing central role with NATO forces.

Finally, Turkey's desire to become an EU member hinges on many expectations, one of which Turkey's standing with its neighbors. Turkey's potential of becoming an EU member-state would make Iran, Iraq and Syria all EU Border States, which would have major implications to national security, trade and commerce. Turkey has thus far done admirably well in undertaking key social and political reforms in completing its required EU chapters, it has just signed an historic reconciliation agreement with Armenia, and is introducing a major new legislations that will give its Kurdish minority equal political and cultural freedoms as any Turkish citizen. This most significant progress has brought Turkey much closer to EU standards, but will not be sufficient unless Turkey demonstrates both the ability and the resolve to maintain excellent relations with all of its Middle Eastern neighbors. Turkey's strategic cooperation with Israel is viewed most positively by both the United States and the EU. Ankara cannot afford to improve its relations with other countries in the area by watering down its strategic alliance with Israel as speculated by others.

Turkish-Israeli collaboration in military, economic, intelligence and national security matters is predicated on mutuality of long-term interests that constitute the core of their strategic alliance. From the time Turkey recognized Israel in 1950 this relationship has endured several ups and downs, but it remained constant because it is also safeguarded by traditional centuries-old friendship between the Turks and the Jews that no temporary political discord can change.

 
 
 

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