Turkey and Israel Lock Arms
by Jennifer Washburn
The Progressive magazine, December 1998
Last December, when Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz visited
the White House, a coalition of human-rights and arms-control
groups urged President Clinton to confront him about Turkey's
pervasive human-rights violations and its ongoing repression of
the Kurds. Not all members of the American human-rights community
were so critical, however. On December 17, the Anti-Defamation
League (ADL), a prominent Jewish organization that seeks to combat
anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, presented Yilmaz
with its Distinguished Statesman Award and honored him at a gala
dinner attended by the leaders of several major American Jewish
" Turkey stands as a country committed to democracy and
the promotion of tolerance," proclaimed ADL director Abraham
Foxman in a press release distributed at the time. According to
the ADL, its Distinguished Statesman Award goes "to those
leaders who exhibit an extraordinary dedication to regional and
world peace, and who possess a special commitment to promoting
human and civil rights."
Such high praise for Turkey and its head of state prompted
a sharply worded rebuttal from the Washington Kurdish Institute.
Yilmaz's treatment of the Kurds, the group wrote to Foxman, "amount[s]
to little more than ethnic cleansing."
Since 1984, the Turkish military has bombed and depopulated
more than 3,000 Kurdish villages in its campaign to eradicate
the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant Kurdish opposition
group. As a result, 30,000 people have died, and two million Kurdish
refugees have been driven out of their homes into overcrowded
The Turkish government "has long denied the Kurdish population
. . . basic political, cultural, and linguistic rights,"
notes the U.S. State Department in its most recent human rights
report. In 1997," torture remained widespread," and
"government officials continued to harass, intimidate, indict,
and imprison human rights monitors, journalists, and lawyers for
ideas that they expressed in public forums."
So why would the ADL and other Jewish leaders lavish such
praise on Yilmaz?
The reason is Turkey's burgeoning military partnership with
Israel. In February 1996, Turkey and Israel signed a historic
military training agreement, followed six months later by an arms-industry
cooperation pact. Since that time, military and economic ties
between the two countries have blossomed. Both nations now fly
and train in one another's airspace, share sophisticated intelligence
information, enjoy extensive trade relations, and cooperate on
joint security and weapons projects.
"We think the relationship gives hope to the region;
we believe it can be helpful in moving the region toward peace,"
said the ADL's assistant national director Kenneth Jacobson in
an interview with The Progressive. "This award doesn't specifically
use the word human rights," he explained defensively. "We
always raise questions about human rights and the need for further
Most Turkey and Israel supporters, including the Clinton Administration,
agree that this partnership is a cause for celebration. "We
are very supportive of it," says Dana Bauer, deputy director
Office of Southern European Affairs at the State Department.
"It strengthens two pro-Western allies in the region and
helps both to modernize their defense capabilities in areas that
are of mutual interest. We see it as a stabilizing agreement."
Yet throughout the Arab world, and among arms-control and
human-rights groups in the United States, this dramatic strategic
development has raised a host of disturbing questions about the
prospects for Arab-Israeli peace, the stability of the Middle
East, the plight of the Kurds and the Palestinians, and regional
One immediate threat is a massive buildup of Turkey's military
strength. Israel's willingness to sell top-of-the-line military
hardware to Turkey, with no questions asked, could undermine progress
on human rights. As the Congressional Research Service recently
observed, "The Israeli connection enables Turkey to circumvent
U.S. and European arms embargoes and what it believes to be the
influence of anti-Turkish ethnic lobbies in Congress."
Of course, Turkey's main military supplier is the United States.
Eighty percent of Turkey's weapons imports are stamped MADE IN
THE U.S.A. and, over the last decade, Ankara has received more
than $12 billion in direct and indirect U.S. military assistance.
In recent years, however, mounting human rights criticism in the
United States and Europe has been a persistent thorn in Ankara's
side. In 1996, Turkey angrily accused the U.S. Congress of imposing
a "shadow embargo" after a coalition of arms-control
and human-rights groups succeeded in blocking two pending sales
of Cobra helicopters and frigates. Last December, Europe rejected
Turkey's application for membership in the European Union, in
part because of Turkey's failure to improve human rights.
Israeli weapons offer Turkey a way around such sanctions.
David Ivri, an adviser to the Israeli Defense Ministry who was
instrumental in bringing about the Turkish-Israeli accord, was
asked by the Jerusalem Post last year whether Israel considers
human rights when it sells arms to other countries. "Israel
to this day has a policy of not intervening in any internal matters
of any country in the world," Ivri responded. "We don't
like it when others interfere in our internal matters. For this
reason, our policy doesn't touch on such matters."
Over the next twenty-five years, Turkey plans to spend an
astonishing $150 billion to modernize its military. U.S. arms
manufacturers will continue to lobby hard for these lucrative
sales but, increasingly, Israel will be a major competitor. Already,
Turkey and Israel have signed a number of arms deals, with many
more in the works. Two of these involve Israeli contracts worth
$715 million to upgrade Turkish F-4 and F-5 combat planes with
high-tech radar and avionics to improve their performance in bombing
missions. Israel also has orders for night-vision systems, tank
upgrades on F-16 fighter planes, and 200 Popeye missiles. In May
1997, the two countries agreed to co-produce advanced Popeye II
missiles, with a range of ninety miles, which will involve a significant
transfer of technology and manufacturing capability to Turkey.
This year, the two partners also sealed a controversial deal to
jointly produce a new medium-range missile, similar to the Arrow
missile that Israel has been developing using U.S. technology
and $785 million of U.S. funding. Such sales raise questions about
whether Israel will become a back door conduit for Turkey to obtain
Arms control advocates fear that Ankara's access to Israeli
weapons could exacerbate the arms race between Greece and Turkey
(by breaking the military parity that the United States has sought
to maintain) and jeopardize resolution of their dispute over Cyprus.
The Israeli connection could also further strengthen Turkey's
military-the country's ruling power behind the scenes-just when
international pressure is mounting for Turkey to democratize and
find a political solution to its fourteen-year conflict with the
Currently, arms control groups are gearing up for a major
battle over Turkey's plan to purchase 145 advanced attack helicopters,
worth $3.5 billion-one of the most lucrative helicopter deals
in the world. Vying for the contract are a French-German consortium
(Eurocopter), an Israeli-Russian consortium (Israeli Aircraft
Industries and Kamov), and two American companies (Boeing Corporation
of Seattle and Bell Helicopter Textron of Fort Worth). Groups
like Amnesty International U.S.A. are campaigning hard to block
any American sale, since the Turkish armed forces routinely use
these helicopters and other U.S. weapons to carry out their scorched-earth
campaigns against Kurdish villages in the southeast.
When President Clinton met with Prime Minister Yilmaz last
December, he pledged that no final U.S. export license would be
approved unless Turkey could demonstrate improvements in human
rights. Now, however, the Israel-Turkey connection may jeopardize
"There will be tremendous pressure from arms contractors
to grant an export license," says John Tirman, executive
director of the Winston Foundation for World Peace, and author
of Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade. "Choosing
Israel is a way to leverage the U.S. because no one in Israel
. . . is going to raise any human rights problems for Turkey."
The Israeli-Turkish pact fundamentally shifts the balance
of power in the Middle East. As a 1997 paper by Michael Eisenstadt
of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observes Israel's
enemies must now weigh the possibility that Turkey will provide
Israel assistance in the event of a confrontation. The same logic
makes Turkey's enemies more circumspect, as well.
Turkey and Israel have repeatedly stressed that their accord
is not an "alliance" requiring either country to defend
the other. But the Arab countries are dubious-and not without
justification. In February, a former Turkish ambassador to Washington
announced that Turkey would consider allowing Israel to use Turkish
airspace to retaliate if Iraq ever threatens a missile attack
on Israel. And reports already indicate that Israeli planes flying
in Turkish airspace are gathering detailed intelligence on Iran,
Iraq, and Syria- Israel's chief enemies.
Officially, the United States denies that it played any direct
role in bringing this military axis together. But as Eqbal Ahmad,
emeritus professor of Middle East Studies at Hampshire College,
explains, "It seems an impossibility that two principal U.S.
allies could form a bilateral alliance without the U.S. playing
a matchmaking role. There is a long history of the U.S. trying
to find strategic allies in the Middle East who would play deputy
to American power."
Last December, following a U.S.-Turkish-Israeli meeting at
the Pentagon, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai explicitly
confirmed the U.S. role: "I certainly describe the relationship
between us and the Turks as the development of a strategic relationship.
All this with the backing and coordination of the U.S."
One key target of the Israeli-Turkish military partnership
is Syria. "The entire state of Syria, to put it bluntly,
is now surrounded," says Robert Fisk, the Beirut bureau chief
for the London Independent. In addition to its regular reconnaissance
missions over the Golan Heights, Fisk explains, "Israel can
fly along Syria's northern border, just inside Turkey, and presumably
over the northern Iraqi border with Syria as well," where
Turkey regularly goes in pursuit of the PKK. The Economist reports
that Turkey is already receiving detailed information about Syria
from Israel's military intelligence service, Mossad.
Turkey's antagonism toward Syria centers primarily on Damascus's
support for the PKK, which is believed to have bases in the Syrian-controlled
Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.
Turkey and Syria also have a long-running territorial conflict
over the Turkish province of Hatay (which Syria used to control),
and a major dispute over access to water from the Tigris and Euphrates
rivers, which originate in Turkey and flow through Iraq to Syria.
(It is widely thought that Syria supports the PKK largely to increase
its leverage with Turkey over its water rights.)
Israel, meanwhile, has similar objections to Syria's backing
of the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, with whom it continues to
fight a low-intensity war. Israel hopes that pressure from Turkey
along Syria's northern frontier will force Damascus's hand on
talks over the contested Golan Heights.
In early October, simmering tensions in the Middle East boiled
over into a serious confrontation when a top Turkish military
commander announced that Syria and Turkey, which share a 550-mile
border, had reached "a state of undeclared war" over
Syria's support for the PKK. Ankara sent 10,000 troops and equipment
to the border and indicated that it was prepared to invade Syria
to attack the bases of the PKK, just as it does inside northern
Iraq. Damascus responded by calling for talks. The Syrian government's
official newspaper, Al Baath, declared that Turkey's aggressive
behavior could mean only one thing: "full coordination between
Ankara and Tel Aviv in accordance with their alliance."
Seeking to avert a crisis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu suspended flights over the Golan Heights to stress Israel's
noninvolvement. But many analysts question whether Turkey would
have threatened strikes against the PKK in Syria were it not for
its access to intelligence from Mossad and the heightened confidence
Ankara feels from its military partnership with Israel.
"I don't think there is any doubt that this type of confrontation
is what the relationship was conceived to do," says Alan
Makovsky, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near
East Policy. "It was specifically created to intimidate Syrian
President Hafez al-Assad."
Sukru Elekdag, a former Turkish ambassador to the United States,
clearly identified Israel as the source of Ankara's new bravado
in a column appearing in the Turkish Milliyet. "Syria . .
. cannot risk a hot clash with Turkey under today's conditions,"
he reasoned. "Syrians know that . . . if they lose their
military forces in a war with Turkey, they would become totally
vulnerable to Israel, their arch enemy.... In other words, Israel
is breathing down Syria's neck."
In late October, Turkey and Syria reached an agreement in
which Syria would end its support for the PKK and turn over its
leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to Ankara. "I think it worked beautifully
from Ankara's point of view," Makovsky exclaimed. "Turkey
never felt emboldened before, and now it does, Assad never caved
in, and now he did." For Makovsky, Damascus's "surrender"
is evidence that the Turkish-Israeli pact may compel Syria to
bow to Israel's demands, as well.
But others are skeptical. John Tirman believes that the agreement
was probably a "face-saving device." "The Syrians
could easily agree to remove Ocalan, only to let him back in six
months later," he explains. "I would doubt that the
Syrians even have the capacity to eject the PKK out of their territory
completely. The Turkish military continually claims they've done
the PKK in, but then it always seems to resurface again."
Even Makovsky acknowledges that the Turkish-Israeli pact "might
make Assad less secure about making peace." On September
16, the Arab League, led by Damascus, announced that the Turkish-Israeli
pact "exposes Arab interests to real danger and brings the
region back to the policy of axes and alliances" that proved
so destructive during the Cold War.
Assad is certainly not blameless in these conflicts with Israel
and Turkey, but it is by no means clear that a united Turkey-Israel
front is going to soften his stance. Syria has already marshaled
support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq to form a possible
counter-alliance. Egypt, a traditional U.S. ally, has expressed
strong opposition to the pact's effect on regional peace, while
Iraq and Syria, formerly hostile neighbors, appear to be developing
closer ties in response to the pact, despite Syria's support for
the U.S. during the Gulf War.
The new Israel and Turkey relationship may also reinforce
each country's inclination to find military solutions to their
internal conflicts and to view these conflicts primarily through
a "terrorism" lens.
Turkey and Israel's interests "coincide from an international
'terrorism' perspective," notes Mike Amitay, the executive
director of the Washington Kurdish Institute. "How do you
justify using force against segments of your own society? The
answer is you create a terrorism mind-set."
No one disputes the fact that groups like Hamas and the PKK
have committed serious acts of terrorism, but in both Israel and
Turkey the governments' hard-line, anti-terrorism approach has
been strongly criticized as an impediment to dialogue and lasting
In Israel's case, despite the interim agreement signed in
October at Wye Plantation, the Netanyahu government's ongoing
land expropriations, restrictions on travel, and refusal to concede
any genuine autonomy have left many Palestinians deeply disillusioned
with the peace process.
In Turkey, meanwhile, the government's position is yet more
extreme. "There is no dialogue whatsoever," explains
Amitay, "even with legitimate Kurdish groups. Incredible
as it is, Turkey is willing to go to war with a neighboring state-Syria-
rather than identifying Kurdish interlocutors with whom it can
start to negotiate a political solution." Still, he cautions,
"the Turkish military won't find a resolution of its PKK
problem in Damascus; it's a domestic issue."
There is a striking parallel between the Turkish and Israeli
anti-terrorism campaigns. Both countries have violated the sovereignty
of neighboring nations in pursuit of their enemies. In northern
Iraq, Turkey has set up a security zone, nine miles deep, along
the entire length of the Iraq-Turkey border, where it regularly
conducts aerial bombing missions and sends in troops to eliminate
PKK bases. Since 1982, Israel has occupied a similar security
zone inside Lebanon, also nine miles deep, where persistent fighting
with the Hezbollah has ensued. In both cases, civilian casualties
have been high, and no resolution of the conflict is in sight.
Netanyahu publicly acknowledged in May 1997 that the threat
of terrorism has drawn Israel and Turkey together. "Turkey
has suffered from terrorist attacks from the PKK, and we see no
difference between the terrorism of the PKK and that which Israel
suffers," he said. The speech was significant not only because
Netanyahu abandoned Israel's historic neutrality toward the Kurds
and ruled out the establishment of a Kurdish state, but because
he explicitly warned there would be no peace between Israel and
Syria unless Damascus ended its support for the PKK.
Netanyahu's desire to involve Turkey in Israeli-Syrian peace
negotiations could stall the peace process further. Turkey has
long been an outspoken opponent of Israeli-Syrian peace talks
because it fears that, if the two countries ever come to an agreement,
Syria will re-deploy its army from the Golan Heights to the Turkish
border. Given the trouble that Israel and Syria have encountered
in their own negotiations over Lebanon and the Golan Heights,
any participation by Ankara would certainly make reaching a settlement
The same may be true of the Palestinian issue. Even though
Ankara has supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a
Washington Post editorial last year suggested that a strengthening
of Israel's security through its partnership with Turkey could
actually reduce Israel's perceived need to reach a settlement.
In the Arab world, pessimism reigns. Recently, when Israel
suggested it would like to invite Egypt to participate in joint
military exercises with Turkey, Egypt's foreign minister Amr Moussa
responded forcefully. "There has been no invitation, and
there had better not be one," he said. "We regard this
[military pact] as untimely, negative, and unhelpful to efforts
to revive the peace process."
In Washington, the pro-Turkey and pro-Israel lobbies are working
together to pursue their common interests. The Congressional Research
Service notes that Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai
has confirmed that "Israel is assisting
Turkey on the American political scene and encouraging Jewish
organizations to follow this example." Earlier this year,
according to the Economist of London, Turkey "was pleased
to have the support of the powerful Jewish lobby in Washington,"
which "helped to get Congress to unfreeze the sale of two
frigates" to Ankara. The wan Street Journal notes that Turkish
interests "are now on the agenda" of groups like the
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a Washington-based
think tank, and the American-Israel Public Action Committee (AIPAC),
an influential pro-Israel lobby. JINSA has spoken out against
foreign aid cuts to Turkey and has organized meetings between
retired U.S. military officers and their Turkish counterparts.
More recently, the Dallas Morning News reports that the American-Turkish
Association, based in Ankara, has asked a number of Jewish groups-including
the American Jewish Congress, B'nai B'rith, and AIPAC-for their
help on Turkey's upcoming helicopter deal. "Help" essentially
means persuading the Clinton Administration that Turkey's human
rights practices have improved enough to warrant approval of a
U.S. export license." I think Turkey deserves this sale,"
Foxman told the newspaper, citing "the relationship with
For Turkey, this is a dream come true. The new alliance "gives
Ankara something they've never had before," notes John Tirman."
An ethnic constituency in the U.S. that can strengthen Turkey's
lobbying presence in Washington."
Last February, all the threads of this intricate alliance
came together at the annual conference of the American-Turkish
Council, a lobbying group in Washington that promotes closer U.S.-Turkish
business and military relations. There, some of the largest U.S.
weapons companies- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Textron, Raytheon,
Sikorsky/United Technologies-were in attendance, which was not
surprising, since representatives from these firms either sit
on the Council's board of directors or have other leadership posts
in the organization. The conference also attracted U.S. officials
like Senator Jesse Helms (Republican of North Carolina), Commerce
Secretary William Daley, and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff General Joseph Ralston. One panel on the Turkish-Israeli
military pact, with Alan Makovsky speaking, drew considerable
"The fact that Israel and Turkey-the most economically
and militarily powerful states in the region-are working together
as partners is a very dramatic development," says Makovsky.
The conference made it clear that this new power bloc, while cementing
U.S. control over the region, will do little for human rights
Jennifer Washburn is a Senior Research Associate at the World
Policy Institute and a freelance journalist based in New York