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Thursday, May 28, 2020

An Israeli-Turkish love affair over Hezbollah?

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Ten years after relations between Israel and Turkey crashed and burned, the two former allies may once again be growing closer over shared concerns, including Hezbollah’s presence in Syria.Ankara broke off relations with Jerusalem following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident in which 10 pro-Palestinian Turks were killed after they attacked Israeli commandos preventing a Turkish Gaza-bound ship from breaking a naval blockade on the Hamas-run coastal enclave.Six years later Turkey and Israel normalized ties and sent ambassadors to respective capitals but the ties once again cooled after the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018.But, as is the norm in the Middle East, nothing remains the same for long. Two years later, both Turkey and Israel are facing a common enemy in Syria: Hezbollah. “The same Iranian proxy known as Hezbollah is challenging Turkey’s soldiers in Idlib, and it is challenging our soldiers in southern Syria. This is a common topic of interest, as well as energy,” a senior Israel official was quoted as telling the Middle East Eye.The story was also picked up by TRT, a mouthpiece for Turkey’s President  Recep Tayyip Erdogan which said that there are signs of a thaw in relations between the two countries.Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel’s independence in 1949 and the two countries had been close allies with many shared regional interests.The two also cooperated in the defense industry, security cooperation, intelligence sharing and military training beginning in the 1960s and peaking in the 1990s with the 1994 Defense Cooperation Agreement and 1996 Military Training Cooperation Agreement.With those two agreements, the military-security ties became one of the closest in the Middle East, with Israel even providing intelligence to Turkey in its ongoing fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Ankara cooperated with Israel on Iran by providing intelligence it had gathered.The two countries also used to participate in annual joint navy and air force drills but following the downgrading of ties Jerusalem turned instead to Turkey’s adversary, Greece, and the Greek Cypriots instead for military exercises of air, sea, and ground forces.In addition, Turkey used to be one of Israel’s primary arms customers with Israeli firms upgrading Turkish M60 tanks at a cost of $650 million and F-4E planes for an estimated $1 billion as well as supplying Turkey with armed Heron drones for $200 million, electronic reconnaissance and surveillance systems at $200 million and advanced missile systems and smart ammunition for $150 million. But following the Mavi Marmara crisis, Ankara froze all defense industry projects and military cooperation with Jerusalem. Turkey also exerted efforts to isolate Jerusalem from military cooperation with NATO.  But following a short-lived reconciliation deal in 2016,  Ankara withdrew its longstanding veto against Jerusalem being accepted as a partner nation to the organization (not as a member). That move also allowed the first meeting between senior military officials to occur between then-IDF deputy chief of staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan and his Turkish counterpart Gen. Hulusi Akar on the sidelines of a NATO conference for defense heads in Brussels.But as mentioned, the ties cooled once in 2018 with Erdogan calling Israel a “terror state” for its handling of the Great March of Return protests and moving of the American embassy to Jerusalem.Two years later, Erdogan continues to be one of the most vocal critics of Israel and has blasted Jerusalem on its plans to annex the West Bank, vowing that Turkey will support Palestinians against the plan.The complicated and often toxic relationship between the two countries is like a seesaw, with ties peaking before they plummet back to earth. And with Erdogan at the helm of the Turkish seesaw and Netanyahu on the Israeli side, what is said in public will never be the whole story. It is possible that the two militaries, who both see an opportunity to destroy a common enemy, will work behind the scenes to learn from each other the weaknesses of Hezbollah.

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