Israel-Turkey Alliance During the Cold War
For decades the Israeli-Turkish alliance defied conventional wisdom in the Middle East, as Muslim Turkey forged close ties with the Jewish State. Turkey’s secular, nationalist, and pro-Western orientation, packaged into the concept of Kemalism which emphasized territorial integrity of the Turkish state based on the unity of the Turkish people, has turned it into an ideal ally for Israel. The Jewish state has utlized similar concepts in order to enhance the struggle against its Arab neighbors. This relationship came to fruition not longer after the birth of the Jewish state in the early years of the Cold War.
Israel as Turkey’s Outlet to the West-Israel-Turkey
During the Cold War, Turkish-Israeli entente was largely driven by the mutual threats both nations faced from Arab radicalism and Soviet expansion (Murinson, 99). Turkey was bordered by the Soviet Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, making it particularly vulnerable to the ideological and territorial expansion of the USSR. The threat emanating from its large northern neighbor reinforced its aspirations of becoming a Westernized nation-state.
Among Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s most significant visions for Turkey was his ambition to turn it into a Western, European state. Murrinson explains how in light of this, “Turkey’s Western orientation reflected a geopolitical imperative of being embedded in the Euro-Atlantic security system aligned against Communist Russia” (Murrinson, 23). Thus Turkey found it imperative to frame itself as nation committed to Western ideals and capable of repelling Soviet expansion with its strong military.
The US wasted little time utilizing Turkey as a bulwark against Soviet expansion into the oil rich and geopolitically important Middle East region. The implementation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 enabled the US to efficiently funnel aid to Turkey and in 1952 Turkey became the first Muslim nation to join the US led NATO coalition (Walker, 62).
Turkey saw an alliance with Israel, essentially a Western state in the Middle East, as a means of winning further American support. By recognizing Israel in March of 1949, “Turkey wanted to be perceived as a secular and enlightened state by a Western alliance led by the United States” (Murinson, 97). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s several military and intelligence agreements were signed between the leaders of Turkey and Israel, facilitated by mutual threats emanating from Pan-Arabism and Soviet communism.
Israel’s Periphery Doctrine-Israel-Turkey
While for Turkey the alliance with Israel was driven by both pragmatic realities and symbolic, ideological notions which it used to frame itself as a Western state, for Israel a close relationship with Turkey took on a more imperative dimension. Surrounded by hostile Arab states, Israel looked to break out of its regional isolation by forming alliances with pro-Western, non-Arab states in the Middle East.
Such alliances were to reaffirm the Jewish state’s presence in the Middle East and enhance its strategic advantage vis-à-vis rival Arab states that surrounded it. Known as the periphery doctrine, alliance building with non-Arab states became part and parcel of Israel’s foreign policy for decades to come.
Joining Turkish-Israeli entente during the Cold War was Iran, whose incentives to form an alliance with Israel somewhat mimicked those of Turkey. Like Turkey, Iran was a pro-Western, non-Arab Muslim state vulnerable to communist penetration from Soviet Union which bordered it on the north. And like Turkey, Iran also saw a good relationship with Israel as a means of getting closer to Washington.
Israel – An Expendable Ally?-Israel-Turkey
It can be argued that both Turkey and Iran saw Israel as a temporary and expendable ally whose value was symmetrical to the extent of the Soviet, and to a lesser degree, Arab threat facing both countries. Trita Parsi states that, “Throughout the 1950s, Iran viewed Israel primary as a vehicle to prevent Soviet – and not Arab – advances in the region” (Parsi, 24).
Turkey’s anxieties about Soviet expansion were so great, that it voted against UN’s partition of Palestine in 1947, fearing that the Zionist movement was infused with communist elements and thus would lead to increased Soviet presence in the region (Walker, 63). Turkey’s reservations about the Jewish state were of course short-lived, as the Turkish state warmed-up to Israel when America’s embrace of it became apparent.
Though Turkey was concerned about the spread of Pan-Arabism in the region, its anxieties were driven by the perception that the movement’s main proponent, the regime of Gamal Nasser in Egypt, was a Soviet proxy which could facilitate Soviet penetration within Turkish borders. Even the formation of the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria, the latter of which shares a border with Turkey, was viewed by the Turks as a Soviet, rather than a regional Arab threat (Walker, 71).
While Turkey saw Pan-Arabism as a mere extension of Soviet influence in the region, Israel saw the movement and its proponents in Egypt and Syria as existential threats. Both countries were aggressors in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, in which they sought to divide the conquered Israeli-Palestinian lands amongst themselves (Morris, 11-12). Israel’s decisive victory and territorial expansion into Arab lands humiliated the Arabs, serving as the rallying call for Arab unity against the Jewish state.
Thus throughout this time period, Turkey perceived its relationship with Israel as essential for the continuation of American backing which it needed in order to counter the threat of Soviet expansion; Israel on the other hand perceived the relationship with Turkey as essential for its very survival.
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- Morris, B. (1994). 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians. Clarendon Press: Oxford.
- Murinson, A. . Turkey’s Entente with Israel and Azerbaijan: State Identity and Security in the Middle East and Caucasus. Routledge: New York.
- Parsi, T. . Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the US. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
- Walker, J. . Turkey and Israel’s Relationship in the Middle East. Mediterranean Quarterly, 17(4), 60-90.