from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Guest Post: Sibling Rivalry

February 16, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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There is a Middle Eastern country that lately finds itself enmeshed in a large degree of controversy.  A non-Arab democracy founded by a cadre of westernizing secularists, it has committed a number of diplomatic missteps.  The country’s initial response to unrest in the Arab world was to back the ruling authoritarian leaders, which proved a mistake.  It also finds its relations with a critical neighbor and trading partner quickly and severely deteriorating in the wake of the Arab Spring, which is challenging for a number of reasons, not least of which that it relied on this neighbor to be its gateway to the Arab world.

 The country is dealing with a number of serious foreign policy problems, the most severe being a national liberation movement that seeks an independent state.  The government’s policy toward this movement has been muddled at best, ranging from periods of negotiation and concessions to large scale military operations against militants.  Currently, the government insists that the movement is a violent one driven by a terrorist organization, and it has taken a hardline approach that has brought international condemnation in the wake of airstrikes that have killed civilians and failed to curtail the group’s popularity among its constituent population.

A combination of support for government military action in the wake of terrorist attacks and a party in power headed by a nationalist prime minister has led to policies that are eroding the quality of the country’s democracy.  Restrictions on freedom of expression and suspicion of politically motivated tax and licensing decisions against independent media outlets that have been critical of the government have not been encouraging.  There have also been high profile rifts between the civilian government and the army, with former military and intelligence officials warning that the prime minister and his cabinet are taking actions that are not in the country’s best interests.  The country has had a series of unfortunate diplomatic snafus, in which members of the government have publicly lectured or embarrassed foreign dignitaries, including President Obama and Vice President Biden.  Despite being a vital ally of the United States with a strong relationship based on decades of military and intelligence cooperation, the country’s relations with the U.S. are shakier than they have been in years.

It should be fairly obvious at this point which country I am referring to, right?  As it happens, that depends on your perspective (or perhaps on your political leanings) – the country described above is either unmistakably Israel or unmistakably Turkey.  The similarities between the two are striking, and the history of friendship and cooperation between Ankara and Jerusalem should point to an eventual rapprochement.  Events in Iran and Syria make incentives for cooperation stronger than ever.  Yet Israel and Turkey are not close to mending their dysfunctional relationship, and politics in both countries run the risk of turning the split into a permanent one.  This would have disastrous consequences, as the bilateral relationship between the two countries is about to take on an outsized importance as the clamor for war with Iran grows and the turmoil in Syria escalates.  The reality is that there is a small window of opportunity for reconciliation, and now is the optimal time for both sides to get past their differences.

While ideally the similarities between the two make it easier for the two countries to get along, the dynamics of the relationship actually operate to push Turkey and Israel further apart.  Israel’s occupation of the West Bank allows Ankara to view its own treatment of the Kurds as comparatively benign and thus not as a pressing problem requiring an immediate solution, while Israel sees its recent spate of illiberal parliamentary bills as trifling compared to Turkey’s imprisonment of journalists and self-censoring press.  Rather than empathizing with a former ally facing a similar set of challenges, the rhetoric on both sides increasingly views the other with scorn, unaware of the ironic emperor-has-no-clothes-on dynamic at work.

It is critical that Israel and Turkey start cooperating to mitigate the challenges coming down the road from Syria and Iran.  As full-blown civil war in Syria becomes more likely, Israel and Turkey stand to be the two countries with the most to lose.  Each has benefited from Syrian stability, with Turkey doing billions of dollars in trade and Israel enjoying relative quiet on its northern border, but this stability has ended.  Turkey has already been dealing with a steady flow of Syrian refugees, and the IDF chief of staff announced a few weeks ago that Israel was preparing for a refugee crisis in the Golan Heights.  A coordinated effort on the part of Ankara and Jerusalem will make dealing with a crisis easier, particularly when the fighting in Syria ends and refugees need to be repatriated.  A united stand against Assad by his two most powerful neighbors might also provide a needed boost to the opposition.

More pressingly, Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz and the decision by the EU to embargo Iranian oil make a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf a growing possibility, and a higher level of trust between Turkey and Israel is critical to assuaging Israeli nerves.  The NATO X-Band early warning radar system that went online in Turkey in mid-January should theoretically provide the Israelis with a renewed sense of security, but instead it has become a point of contention in the wake of Israeli fears that Turkey will not alert it should there be an Iranian missile attack.  Turkey’s refusal to honor any non-UN sanctions on Iran also leads Israel to fear that Turkey is becoming a barrier to efforts aimed at preventing Iranian nuclear capability, and an improvement in bilateral relations would go a long way toward convincing Jerusalem that Turkey has no intention of being complicit in any theoretical Iranian attack and in turn would reduce the risk of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

The reconciliation talks last fall, and the aid each provided in the wake of natural disasters – the Israeli forest fires in Carmel and the Turkish earthquakes in Van – provide some optimism upon which to build, and for the first time since the flotilla fiasco the political environment appears favorable for a reset in the relationship.  Prime Minister Erdoğan’s AKP won a resounding electoral victory in June, obviating the need to continue the hardline rhetoric against Israel that was an effective campaign tool.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is enjoying record popularity at home and polls show his Likud party increasing their share in the Knesset were elections to be held today, giving him the necessary wiggle room to cut a deal with Turkey.  The improving U.S. economy along with the weak Republican presidential field also provide an incentive for Netanyahu to make some overtures to Obama before he wins a second term, and reconciliation with Turkey is low hanging fruit.

Turkey and Israel have too much in common and too many shared interests to continue their feud.  The two countries need to put aside their differences and resume their military and diplomatic cooperation now before events in the region doom their relationship permanently.

Michael J. Koplow is a doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, where he focuses on Middle East politics and democratization. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Security Studies, The Atlantic, and the New York Times.

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