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What Does Turkish Turmoil Mean For Israel?

As Turkish tanks and F-16s filled the streets and skies of Turkish cities on Friday night in an effort to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP government from power, Israeli officials had cause for anxiety. The newly announced reconciliation deal has been highly touted by both governments, and while the military coup in Egypt that brought President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power in 2013 has been a boon for Israeli-Egyptian relations, there is no way of knowing what a military government in Turkey would bring. Ultimately, Israel’s initial radio silence and subsequent endorsement of “the democratic process in Turkey” was geared toward sending a message that it hopes reconciliation will continue apace and that is indeed the likely scenario. Nevertheless, the failed Turkish coup is going to affect Israel in other ways, some obvious and some less so.

The reconciliation agreement is still on track according to Turkish officials, and given that the government that negotiated it is still in place, there is no compelling reason to think otherwise. If anything, Turkey will be even more desperate now for Israeli intelligence and military cooperation given that the general who oversaw the army command responsible for securing Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq has been arrested as a coup plotter. The same rationales that existed for reconciling with Israel last month still exist today, and while reconciliation may easily get fouled up by other outside events, the Turkish government’s near-miss is not one of them.

In some ways, the events of last weekend actually may make the political relationship between Israel and Turkey stronger. Erdoğan is now laying the groundwork to be stronger domestically than he has been at any point during his tenure at the top of Turkish politics. He is using the coup attempt as an excuse to completely eviscerate all opposition wherever he suspects it lurks, from the military to the judiciary to the primary and higher education systems. His supporters, many of whom already saw him as a demigod above reproach, are now fired up and mobilized to back anything he does, and anyone who stands in the way will immediately be tarred as a Gülen movement terrorist or worse. The chances of Erdoğan now getting the constitution for which he has been pushing that will formally transform Turkey into a presidential system are nearly assured. The upshot of all this is that historically Erdoğan has used Israel as a punching bag when he has felt challenged domestically, or when he has not had a more convenient group on which to pin Turkey’s ills. The all-out war against the Gülenists combined with the fact that Erdoğan is on the verge of truly making himself into a modern day sultan mean that using Israel for nationalist or populist purposes is not going to be the crutch to which he immediately turns. That is not to say that a Turkey going through a period of nationalist-tinged anger is not going to have its share of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, but Erdoğan has other more pressing targets for now. In the context of Israel being used as an instrument of scorn in the Turkish political arena, a strong Erdoğan is better for Israel than a weak Erdoğan.

On the other hand, the military side of things will be much thornier for reasons that are apparent. The heyday of Israeli-Turkish ties in the 1990s was driven by the countries’ respective militaries, and in some respects Israel may be lucky that the freeze of the past six years means that few in Turkey will have any cause to insinuate Israeli military involvement in a Turkish military coup, despite the fact that one of the ringleaders was a former military attaché to Israel. The purges of the Turkish armed forces began immediately and will be ongoing on a scale that is unprecedented in Turkish history, and any robust relationships between IDF officers and their Turkish counterparts may now all be erased. In addition, the coup attempt was centered around the Turkish air force, which historically had the closest connection to the IDF as a result of quarterly Israeli air force training exercises in Turkey, and so any existing institutional relationship is bound to suffer as the air force is gutted in the wake of the coup plot.

One wildcard for Israel going forward is the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Turkey relationship, as Turkey demands that the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gülen, whom the government accuses of being behind the coup, and some Turkish cabinet ministers go so far as to blame the U.S. for the coup itself by dint of Gülen’s permanent residence here. Inflammatory Turkish rhetoric against the U.S. is hardening and the Obama administration’s response has been to warn Turkey about maintaining democratic norms and tacitly threatening its NATO status, so this is likely to get worse before it gets better. The U.S. was actively involved in encouraging Israeli-Turkish reconciliation out of a desire to see two of its closest regional allies not be at loggerheads, but a closer Israeli relationship with Turkey will not necessarily win any points with the U.S. should there be a serious falling out between the two NATO allies. While it is difficult to imagine any U.S. administration actively suggest that Israel cool things down with Turkey, there are certainly calculations to be made by Jerusalem as to how much it benefits from moving closer to Turkey just as the U.S. moves in the other direction.

Finally, the upheaval and reprisals in Turkey provide a sobering lesson and a warning sign to both the political and military establishments in Israel. On the one hand, the Turkish chaos presents a clear contrast to Israel, which has a strong army that has always been intimately – albeit informally – involved in politics and a robust military culture but has never suffered a military coup or even been close. The IDF often acts as a brake on politicians, as was the case during the years-long debate over whether to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, but it is never as a result of coercion and there is no question of the primacy of civilian oversight. Israel is, however, right now going through a rocky period in civil-military relations, and it is something that did not develop overnight. The failed coup attempt in Turkey is the result of myriad factors, but a significant one is the buildup of years of resentment from officers who feel that the government has hounded them unfairly, used them as a political tool, and treated them as pawns in larger battles. Israel would be wise to absorb what is going and use it to reinforce the longstanding Israeli ethos of harmonious and mutually beneficial civil-military relations and the necessitude of having a military that is above politics.

This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.