Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz paid an official visit to Ankara on Thursday, during which he met with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The visit, which came after the two countries reappointed their respective ambassadors in August, marks the completion of the process of normalization of bilateral relations between Turkey and Israel. The changes in the geopolitical landscape due to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine will have an impact on countries like Turkey and Israel, which have focused their foreign policy more on the security axis. Therefore, the Israeli defense minister’s visit must be analyzed carefully. What are the concrete developments behind the visit to Turkey by Gantz, who is currently considered the most important minister in the Israeli cabinet?
History of Turkish-Israeli defense industry cooperation
In the 1990s Turkey defined the fight against the separatist, terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a primary national security concern. During that time the common thinking in Turkey was that its neighbors Syria, Iran and Greece supported the PKK. Turkey established cooperation with Israel for the intelligence support, military technology transfer and weapons systems purchases it needed to conduct counterterrorism operations against the PKK. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which was active in Turkish foreign policy at the time, was influential in Turkey’s decisions in that area. Another factor that led to the Turkey-Israel cooperation was that Turkey wanted to secure the support of the Jewish lobby to cope with the Greek and Armenian lobbies, which promoted policies to the detriment of Turkey
The most crucial factor that led Israel to cooperate with Turkey was Israel’s security concerns. Israel wanted to establish a strategic balance with Turkey against Iraq and Iran, which it considered serious threats. Second, the width and depth of Israeli airspace were insufficient for training fighter pilots. Using Turkish airspace to train Israeli fighter pilots would sharpen their skills and increase their operational readiness. Third, Israel wanted to cooperate with countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia through relations with Turkey.
The influence of the TSK in foreign policy led to several bilateral military and defense industry agreements such as those signed in February and August 1996, which allowed joint air and naval exercises, granted access to port facilities and allowed the Israeli Air Force to conduct training flights over the Anatolian plateau, as well as defense industry cooperation. The agreements provided Turkey with access to advanced military technology and hardware produced by Israeli defense contractors such as Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Israel Military Industries (IMI) and Rafael. The basis for the defense industry relationship was Turkey’s goal of modernizing the TSK while developing an indigenous defense industry eco-system and the willingness of Israeli defense contractors to transfer technology or form joint ventures with Turkish defense companies. Turkish defense contractors acquired significant capabilities through the cooperation between Turkey and Israel, including producing unmanned aerial vehicles, missile guidance systems, tank armor and aircraft retrofitting, with the know-how provided by Israeli defense companies playing an essential role in supporting Turkey’s defense industry on its path to self-sufficiency.
Re-establishment of military and defense cooperation
It’s said that history repeats itself. Turkey’s and Israel’s security concerns have encouraged the countries to cooperate again in the military field and defense industry. Turkey considers an autonomous Kurdish region to be established in northern Syria to be a threat to its national security. However, Iran’s presence in Syria prevents Turkey from taking military action in northern Syria. Taking advantage of its good relations with Russia, Turkey had conducted military operations in northern Syria several times in the past with Russia’s support, despite Iran’s objections. However, Russia’s need for Iran’s support to break its isolation after the invasion of Ukraine and its purchase of ballistic missiles and kamikaze drones from Iran have brought relations between the two countries to a strategic level. For this reason, Russia can remain silent about Iran being more effective in Syria and expanding its power. The growing military relationship between Iran and Russia is affecting the operational capability of the Israeli Air Force over Syria. Given Russia’s critical dependence on Iranian drones and technical support, this could seriously disrupt Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah bases and facilities in Syria, which pose a threat to Israel. Both Turkey and Israel see Iran’s growing influence in Syria as a threat.
The Turkish Air Force has lost its deterrent power since Turkey was removed from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project. Due to the deterioration of bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States, Turkey has experienced delays in modernizing its F-16s to Block 70 levels. Turkey urgently needs a solution to modernizing its F-16 fighter jets, and the Israeli defense industry has sufficient capabilities to help Turkey with that. In addition, Israel could supply Turkey with spare parts and military hardware for major weapons systems.
Israel wants to become an energy hub for natural gas and green energy in the eastern Mediterranean. For this reason, stabilizing the eastern Mediterranean basin is vital for Israel. With the mediation of the US, Israel reached an agreement on the determination of the maritime border with Lebanon on Oct. 27, 2022. The two countries have no diplomatic relations and have formally been at war since Israel’s creation in 1948.
According to a press statement released by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The agreement also envisages a joint development model and revenue sharing through third party operator for certain hydrocarbon license areas within two countries’ continental shelf. This model which reflects similar practices in the world, sets a good example for the region and in particular for the Turkish and Greek Cypriots.”
As stated in the press release, Turkey says the contractual model used for the Israel-Lebanon agreement can also be used for the sharing of natural gas resources around the island of Cyprus.
Turkish-Israeli defense cooperation and military relations fluctuated sharply between 1993 and their low point in 2010, when Israeli commandos attacked the Mavi Marmara, part of an aid flotilla attempting to breach the blockade of Gaza on May 31, 2010. Given the changing geopolitical landscape in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean, the rising security concerns stemming from Iran for both Turkey and Israel facilitated reconciliation between the two states, with the visit of the Israeli defense minister completing the normalization of relations. After that, defense industry cooperation and military relations will be restored. Israeli Defense Minister Gantz said, “The Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean region are changing. Alliances, some of which were unthinkable not so long ago, are being built in the face of alarming threats.” Improving relations between Turkey and Israel could therefore lead to crucial geopolitical developments in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.