This month, 28 NATO leaders gathered in Chicago for the first NATO summit in the United States since 9/11. While global attention was focused on the Alliance’s impending withdrawal from Afghanistan, the summit also exposed underlying tensions, most notably the new French president’s campaign promises to “reevaluate” his predecessor’s decision to reintegrate France into NATO’s military command and accelerate the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Turkey, NATO’s sole Middle Eastern member and second largest military, blocked Israeli attendance of the summit—despite the presence of 13 other non-NATO partners—in an escalation of its six-year-old spat with the Jewish State. Originally a bilateral dispute, Ankara has now entangled NATO and, with it, the United States, blocking cooperation between two of the United States’ most important alliances. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s reaction has been to defend rather than curtail Turkish behavior, rewarding Ankara with sales of some of the most sophisticated arms in the U.S. arsenal.
Over the past three years, Turkey has gradually ended its strategic relationship with Israel. Following Operation Cast Lead in late 2008, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan labeled Israel a “terrorist state”, accused the Israeli president of “knowing how to murder”, and canceled Israeli participation in military exercises on Turkish soil, first inaugurated in 2001. As a result, the United States also withdrew from the exercises and, in the intervening years, Turkey has instead held military exercises with Syria and China. Subsequent to the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, where Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turkish citizens in self-defense aboard a Turkish vessel, relations went from sour to sordid, leading to an eventual Turkish expulsion of Israel’s ambassador and severing of diplomatic ties. Recently, Turkey has threatened to thwart commercial cooperation between Israel and Cyprus over the development of large gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean and Turkish prosecutors just this week proposed charging Israeli military leaders with murder over the Mavi Marmara incident.
Turkish hostility towards Israel has now begun to hinder U.S. military planning. The AKP government has stated that it refuses to share data gleaned from the U.S.-owned and NATO-operated X-band radar stationed on its territory, which NATO just declared operational, with Israel, assuring Iran that it would not allow the facility to be used against it. Just a few months ago, Turkey squelched Israeli participation in Operation Active Endeavor, a NATO, anti-terrorism maritime patrol of the Mediterranean that would have marked Israel’s first active participation in a NATO mission. (Israel sent a naval officer to the operation’s headquarters in Naples in 2008 to observe.) This strategy escalated even further when Turkey vetoed Israeli participation in the Chicago summit.
Although the Turkish government is squarely to blame, American acquiescence to—and apology for—Turkish demands have hardened the Turkish position. President Obama has a warm relationship with Prime Minister Erdogan and bestowed on Turkey his first visit to the Middle East, in April 2009. Washington meekly justified Israeli non-participation, citing that it has neither attended a previous NATO summit, nor is it a “major contributor” to NATO missions; a Catch-22 if there ever was one. When pestered about the issue, a State Department spokeswoman preferred discussing Israeli-Palestinian progress, a sign of the Administration’s deep discomfort with the issue. Two other Mediterranean Dialogue partners, Morocco and Jordan, as well as Qatar and the UAE were invited to Chicago; their combined contribution to NATO missions is 135 troops, hardly “major.” Two months ago, the U.S. Air Force ended its multi-year moratorium on joint exercises and participated in Anatolian Eagle 2012, a bilateral military exercise in Turkey.
A decade after refusing to allow the United States to invade Iraq from its territory, Turkey is now leasing Predator drones from the United States—one of which reportedly provided the reconnaissance for the Turkish airstrike on 34 Kurdish civilians in late December—to help track down PKK rebels stationed along the Iraqi border. Moreover, the U.S. has agreed to sell to Ankara 100 next generation F-35 fighter aircraft as well as Predator drones and attack helicopters.
Turkey has severed its once close military relationship with Israel and has blocked Israeli cooperation with NATO, only to be rewarded by the United States with some of the most sophisticated aerial assets known to man. Instead of continuing to allow Turkey to veto NATO-Israeli cooperation, Washington needs to make clear that its recent expanded military cooperation and sales of advanced weaponry to Turkey is conditional on Turkey ending its obstructionist, anti-Israel policies. While the Administration may feel that it needs Turkish cooperation on a host of Middle Eastern issues, its silence is merely encouraging, not reigning in, Turkish intransigence.
Gabriel Max Scheinmann, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University.