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 in May 2010. Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, will visit Turkey March 9-10, raising hope for the normalization of relations between the two countries. If the ties return to normal and mutual ambassadors are appointed, how would this affect cooperation between the Turkish and Israeli defense industries and military relations?
The Palestinian issue is one of the factors affecting Turkey’s relations with Israel. Turkey has always welcomed Israel taking any steps to settle the Palestinian issue. After the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords — agreements between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — Turkish-Israeli relations changed from formal ties to an undeclared alliance.
The influence of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in foreign policymaking led to several bilateral military and defense industry cooperation agreements between Turkey and Israel in the 1990s. In 1992, the defense ministers of the two countries signed a document on cooperation; in 1993, the countries signed the Memorandum of Understanding and Guidelines; in 1994, an agreement on “Security and Secrecy”; and in 1996, an agreement on military training and cooperation and an agreement on military industry cooperation. The two agreements were signed in February and August 1996, although some provisions remain confidential. They allowed for joint air and naval exercises, granted access to port facilities and allowed the Israeli Air Force to conduct training flights over the Anatolian plateau. The two navies also jointly held search and rescue drills, and naval exercises named Reliant Mermaid started in January 1998 as an initiative to bolster peacetime cooperation and interoperability between the US, Turkish and Israeli navies in the Mediterranean. In addition the agreements provided cooperation in the “fight against terrorism.” It also established, with US support, a joint surveillance system consisting of high-sensitivity receivers, cameras and satellites.
These agreements did not result in a formal alliance. Although both countries emphasized that the deals were not directed against any single country, Turkey’s primary intention was to signal to Syria that the pursuit of adversarial policies, notably continued support for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), posed increased security risks for itself. Turkey sought to offset the security risk through a military alliance with Israel. In 2002 improved relations strengthened Turkey’s security against various new and old threats. Other motivations for improving Turkish-Israeli relations included improving and modernizing the TSK’s equipment by acquiring sophisticated weapons systems from Israel, initiating intelligence cooperation against the PKK and improving Turkey’s relations with the US Congress and government.
Defense industry cooperation
According to the Turkish government and the TSK, the defense industry agreements with Israel were another step toward modernizing the TSK and developing Turkey’s defense sector. 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), Rafael and Elta. The basis for the defense industry relationship was Turkey’s goal of modernizing the TSK while developing an indigenous defense industry and the willingness of Israeli defense companies to transfer technology or form joint ventures with Turkish companies. To realize this vision, the Turkish government was willing to buy “off-the-shelf” weapons only in a security emergency; it preferred to invest in expanding domestic defense capabilities through joint ventures between Turkish and foreign companies. In 1998 the Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry (SSM) and the TSK developed and agreed on a new formal plan for weapons development and procurement. The government intended to invest $150 billion over 25 years to modernize the TSK. In addition the plan stipulated that Turkey would only purchase equipment from foreign companies if it could not be manufactured in Turkey.
Israeli firms won contracts worth more than $700 million to upgrade some 100 Turkish F-4 and F-5 fighter jets and supplied missiles and electronic equipment to Turkey in the first significant projects under the agreements. Israel Military Industries won a $668 million contract in 2002 to modernize 170 M60 tanks. Another deal, worth $183 million, involved the production of 10 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and related surveillance equipment for the Turkish army by a joint venture led by IAI. Military goods accounted for 69 percent of the bilateral trade volume of $2.6 billion in 2007.
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. Defense industry cooperation, which has been suspended since 2010, could be resumed once relations are normalized.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the geopolitical landscape of the Black Sea. Turkey must have a deterrent military force to protect its interests in the Black Sea against Russia. The Turkish Air Force has lost its deterrent power as Turkey has been excluded from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project and is unable to modernize its F-16 Block 70 due to the deterioration of bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States. Reconciliation with Israel will also contribute positively to Turkey-US bilateral relations.
Following reconciliation, the US could give the green light to re-involve Turkey in the F-35 project if Turkey assures that it would support Israel’s security, which is a top US foreign policy priority, as it did in the 1990s. In addition, with the support of the Jewish lobby, procurement from the US of 40 F-16 Block 70 aircraft and 80 Viper upgrade kits for the current F-16 aircraft could be accelerated.
Turkey and Israel have common interests in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish and Israeli defense contractors are well acquainted with each other’s capabilities and capacities. The Israeli and Turkish defense industries can cooperate on important projects, especially in the production of robots and autonomous systems. On the other hand, Turkey must convince the United States and Israel through concrete government stances that its foreign policy is consistent with the liberal and democratic world order.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.