The Israeli government is split over the correct response to Turkey’s decision to cancel a joint military exercise. While the Foreign Ministry is in favour of a belligerent stance, the defence establishment is trying to lower the tensions.
Israeli, American, Italian and Turkish warplanes were due to simulate dogfights against each other this week over Turkey, but Ankara barred Israel from participating at the last minute, in protest at Operation Cast Lead. The other participants then pulled out, leading to the cancellation of the manoeuvre.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan later accused the international community of blaming Muslims while “phosphorus bombs rained on innocent children in Gaza”.
Israeli officials insisted that they were not surprised by the clash.
“An exercise such as this necessitates months of detailed planning,” said one defence ministry source, “and when the Turks did not initiate any planning sessions, it was clear to us that the exercise was not going to take place.”
According to a senior IDF officer, joint exercises are continuing as planned and the only reason for the cancellation of the “Anatolian Eagle” exercise was that “it was publicised in advance and for inner political reasons and due to their relations with the Arab states, the Turks didn’t want pictures of planes that only a few months ago bombed Gaza, training over their territory”.
Just two months ago, he added, the navies of both countries had trained together in a joint “search and rescue” exercise under Nato auspices.
The Foreign Ministry has been sounding a different tone over the whole affair, with senior officials blaming Turkey of hypocrisy in criticising Israel over Gaza, “while it is using much heavier tactics in its fight against the Kurd movements on its border with Iraq”.
Turkey was also lambasted for its “two faces” in engaging the West in order to gain EU membership while trying to curry favour with other Muslim countries.
Defence officials have criticised the Foreign Ministry’s attitude, saying that “they think that talking tough is always the best option” and blaming Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for this approach. Defence Minister Ehud Barak gave voice to this displeasure on Monday when he issued a statement saying that “Israel-Turkey relationships are strategic and have existed for decades. Despite the ups and downs, Turkey continues to play a central role in the region and there is no room for belligerent statements towards her.”
The two countries have enjoyed close security ties since the mid-1990s when growing tension between Turkey and Syria over a border dispute caused the Ankara government to engage Israel in a regional alliance that pressured the Syrians to reach an accommodation.
In addition to the joint exercises, which have seen Israeli pilots training near the Turkey-Syria border, Israeli firms have won contracts to modernise Turkey’s tanks and their intelligence services have swapped information.
While an Islamic government in Ankara has been more openly critical of Israel’s actions during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, defence officials insist that behind the scenes, security ties remain close.