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How Israel began seeing Turkey as a threat instead of a partner

Turkish moves in Libya, East Jerusalem and Yemen are drawing Israeli interest and concern
A protester holds a chronological Palestine-Israel map during a demonstration at Istanbul's Fatih mosque (AFP)
By Yossi Melman in Tel Aviv, Israel

Israeli military and security chiefs are increasingly worried about what they term as "Turkey's expanded encroachment" in the Middle East.

Turkey's efforts to elevate its political, economic, cultural and military interests, spreading from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, are also a major concern for Israeli allies and partners in the region: Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan, the United Arab Emirates and eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar.

Ankara has already established its presence and influence in Syria, Iraq, the besieged Gaza Strip, occupied East Jerusalem, Somalia, Sudan and Libya, and most recently is showing a growing interest in Yemen.

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The French newsletter Intelligence Online reported earlier this month that MIT, the Turkish intelligence agency, has formed strong ties with Yemen's Islah party, which identifies with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to the report, the main vehicle to enhance its interests is via IHH, a Turkish relief and humanitarian group that is sending aid to Yemen.

Despite being a Saudi proxy that has fought the Houthis for years, Islah has no qualms about cooperating with Turkey.

In 2010, IHH famously sent Mavi Marmara, a ship loaded with humanitarian supplies and manned by Turkish and international pro-Palestine activists, to the Gaza Strip. The boat was stopped and raided by Israeli naval commandos, in a violent incident which resulted in the death of 10 Turkish activists.

Three years later, the Israeli government agreed to compensate the families of the victims with a payment of $21m. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologised to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then the Turkish premier.

Netanyahu and his security chiefs hoped that the gesture would help to smooth relations between the two countries. That hasn't happened.

Soured relations

Though economic ties have remained very good over the past seven years, with mutual trade and tourism increasing, intelligence and security ties have sunk to their lowest ebb.

Before that, Turkey and Israel had formed a formidable strategic partnership that had lasted nearly 50 years.

Agents from Israel's Mossad and Turkey's MIT met regularly, shared intelligence and assisted each other in operations against common enemies, especially Syria.

Israeli defence contractors sold Turkey military hardware that included tanks, missiles, drones, artillery and intelligence equipment, as well as upgrading the avionics of warplanes. Between 1985 and 2000 these deals were worth more than $5bn. 

But over the past decade, while Erdogan consolidated his power at home and realised that Turkey's hopes and dreams of joining the European Union were fading away, he distanced himself from Israel.

Israeli leaders accustomed to his temper are not particularly worried about Erdogan's diatribes against the occupation and atrocities against the Palestinians.

Agents from Israel's Mossad and Turkey's MIT met regularly, shared intelligence and assisted each other in operations against common enemies, especially Syria

What they are concerned about is Turkey's close encounters with Hamas's military wing.

According to the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service, Salah al-Aruri, a top Hamas commander who in 2007 was deported by Israel, set up his headquarters in Turkey. He is now rotating between Beirut and Istanbul, allegedly planning attacks against Israeli targets. Turkish officials have repeatedly denied the allegations.

Israeli police and the Shin Bet are also closely monitoring Turkey's increased activity in occupied East Jerusalem via Tika, the official Turkish government aid agency.

Tika is donating money and food to Palestinians in East Jerusalem and has helped to open a coffee shop, hostel and cinema there. Israeli authorities claim that under the guise of cultural and humanitarian work, Turkey is promoting the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Erdogan's grandiose vision of restoring the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Palestine for centuries until World War One. 

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In Iraq and to a lesser degree Syria, Israeli intelligence worked closely with the US, Nato and Jordan to assist the Kurdish forces that fought against the Islamic State (IS) group.

This cooperation was an extension of the longstanding clandestine collaboration between Israel and the Iraqi Kurds in the 1960s and 1970s. The Kurds fit into the Israeli strategic concept known as the "Peripheral Alliance," which seeks alliances between the Jewish state and ethnic and religious minorities in Arab-Muslim countries in the Middle East.

Gas rivalries

But Israel's biggest headache nowadays is in Libya.

The country has been of an interest to Israel's intelligence and military establishment for four reasons. Firstly, because of its location on the Mediterranean. Secondly, due to its proximity to Egypt, Israel's enemy turned strategic partner.

Thirdly, Libya drew interest for being a haven for terrorists during the rule of Muammar Gaddafi. After the collapse of the Gaddafi regime and as looted weapons from military warehouses were conveyed from Libya to Sinai and into the hands of Hamas in Gaza, Israel reached out to eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar.

With the help of Egyptian intelligence, which also has strong interests in Libya, Mossad officials met on numerous occasions with Haftar and his military chiefs. A few weeks ago, it was reported that Israeli weapons were sent to his forces, facilitated by the UAE, which is also supporting Haftar.

The fourth reason is a mixture of strategic and economic motives. After Erdogan decided to distance Turkey from Israel, a new regional partnership emerged. It was based on the old dictum of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". Bound by their rivalry with Turkey, Israel became best friends with Cyprus and Greece. 

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As part of this new tripartite alliance, the three countries signed an agreement to construct EastMed, a pipeline to carry Israeli and Cypriot gas from their Mediterranean fields to Greece and then on to the rest of Europe.

But Turkey's recent intervention in Libya stands in the way. Ankara sides with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in the war against Haftar, who is supported by Russia, Egypt, UAE and Israel.

In recent weeks, Turkish-backed forces in western Libya have recaptured several key towns and military bases formerly held by Haftar.

In November 2019, Turkey and the GNA signed a maritime delimitation agreement, which was roundly rejected by Haftar, along with the governments of Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and France.

Israel worries that the Turkish move is intended only for one purpose: to obstruct plans to build the EastMed. Nevertheless, despite the rivalry and sometimes even hostility between Israel and Turkey, the two countries leave some backchannels open. 

An Israeli official told Middle East Eye earlier this year that his country was seeking to resume full ties with Ankara and once again exchange ambassadors.

Meanwhile, Turkish sources told Al-Monitor in May that Mossad head Yossi Cohen twice in the past 10 months met with his Turkish counterpart, MIT chief Hakan Fidan, to discuss regional problems from Syria to Libya.

Whatever their differences, Israel won't be looking to confront Turkey any time soon. As Israel's then-foreign minister Israel Katz said in December 2019, while Israel opposes Turkish involvement in Libya, "that doesn’t mean we are sending battleships to confront Turkey".

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