The bitter triangle

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The expulsion of Israel's ambassador to Turkey this month, as a Turkish protest over Israel's turning back of a "peace" flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip, is emblematic of a crisis.

Turkey has also frozen military ties and defense contracts, potentially a multibillion-dollar decision. One of the world's unlikeliest alliances, between Israel and Turkey, appears frayed beyond repair.

After decades of military and intelligence collaboration, not to mention extensive economic ties, the two states are now in open conflict over the fate of the Palestinians.

Since 1949, when Turkey became the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, it and the Jewish state shared allies -- the United States and Western Europe -- and also enemies, including radical Arab states. Israel used Turkish airspace to train its fighter pilots, and Turkey purchased advanced military technology from Israeli defense companies. The two exchanged intelligence on the Soviet Union, Iraq, Syria and other common adversaries during the Cold War and, despite occasional spats, maintained diplomatic relations, joint military exercises, and peaceful commerce during decades in which both were surrounded by hostile neighbors.

Never particularly friendly with the Arab states, which had rebelled against Turkish-Ottoman occupation during World War I, Turkey saw Israel as a valuable ally in the region. With the rise of the Islamist AKP (Justice and Development party) in Turkey over the past decade, the Turkish government has increasingly sided with the Palestinians, denouncing Israeli policies as "genocide" and defending Hamas terrorism.

Rushing in to replace Turkey, however, has been another regional power: Greece.

Although both Turkey and Greece are NATO members and U.S. allies, the two have been mutually hostile for centuries. Greece won its independence from the Turkish-Ottoman Empire in 1821, and since then the two states fought each other in four major wars, remaining bitter rivals over the treatment of Greek Christians in Turkey, the division of Cyprus, fishing and territorial rights in the Aegean Sea, and Kurdish rebels in Turkey.

Following the adage that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Greece and Israel, which have not had warm ties, have begun an alignment as a counterpoint to Turkish hostility to both.

In 2010, Israel and Greece conducted their first joint military exercises -- after Turkey canceled a planned operation with Israel. Also in 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Athens, a trip followed up by that of the Greek Prime Minister to Israel. Most significantly, Greece prevented another "peace" flotilla from sailing for the Gaza Strip in 2011 -- the clearest possible contrast to Turkey, which provisioned and supported a similar fleet in 2010.

While Turkey is more strategically significant than Greece, with a stronger military and the largest economy in the Middle East, Jerusalem's accelerating ties with Athens demonstrate that Turkey will bear a cost for abandoning an ally.

Turkish military planners can now expect upgraded Greek missile, air force and naval capabilities, as Israel moves to assist their new friends. Most significantly, Israeli companies, a multibillion dollar factor in the Turkish economy, are now likely to look elsewhere, including to Greece, for more favorable terrain.

Wayne H. Bowen is chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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