ANKARA (Hurriyet)–Amid severely damaged ties with Turkey, the Israeli army has moved to replace the formerly valuable military cooperation through newly developed relations with Athens and Bucharest.
Since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli President Shimon Peres clashed 20 months ago in Davos, Switzerland, the talk in Western capitals has been about whether Ankara has reversed its traditional pro-Western foreign policy. Being debated much less, however, are Israel’s countermeasures to make up for lost military opportunities in Turkey.
Amid the severely damaged ties, the Israeli army has moved to replace its formerly valuable military cooperation with Turkey through newly developed relations with two Balkan countries, Greece and Romania. “The Israeli military in recent months has been very keen to develop a strong defense relationship with some Balkan countries near Turkey,” said one Turkish defense source Tuesday.
Since Israel’s creation in the late 1940s the two countries had strong, albeit pretty secret, political relations and security cooperation during the Cold War, although Ankara’s formal diplomatic ties had remained at a low level. The ties reached a strategic level in the mid-1990s with the signing of a critical defense cooperation agreement in 1996, which also led to Turkey’s purchase of Israeli defense equipment worth billions of dollars over the next decade.
At the zenith of the Turkish-Israeli relationship between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s, Israeli aircraft were training in the skies over Anatolia, and the militaries of the two then-allies had joint maneuvers several times each year.
But after January 2009, when Israel held a major offensive against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the two nations’ ties suffered badly and the Israeli military’s privileges in Turkey gradually came to an end. The Israeli Air Force’s training program in Turkish airspace was halted and in October last year, Israel was expelled from Turkey’s annual international Air Force exercises.
Turkish-Israeli ties hit the bottom in late May when Israeli commandos attacked a Gaza-bound Turkish-led aid flotilla, killing nine onboard.
Israel’s need to replace Turkey
Israel, whose size is nearly half of Turkey’s central province of Konya, has very limited airspace. After Turkey’s loss, its air force’s modern fighters are now holding training flights in Greece’s vast airspace over the Mediterranean, international defense analysts say.
In late July, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou visited Israel, and less than a month later Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hosted in Athens by Papandreou. Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Greece.
During his two-day stay in Athens, Netanyahu told reporters that the two nations were “opening a new chapter” and that he and Papandreou had discussed military cooperation. Papandreou said Greece and Israel were looking at expanding strategic ties.
Greece’s ties with Israel, indeed, had remained tense for decades. Ironically, during the long rule of Papandreou’s father, late Prime Minister Andrea Papandreou, Israel had accused Greece of favoritism toward the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli conflict and of tolerance for individuals Israel considered to be terrorists.
Former Aegean rivals Greece and Turkey have greatly improved relations especially in the past 10 years. Greece now backs Turkey’s eventual membership to the European Union, and Ankara is preparing to remove Athens from a list of threats in its next national security document expected to be adopted soon.
Still, Athens’ rapprochement with Israel comes at a time of an extreme mutual frustration in Israeli-Turkish ties. “We are not concerned over the new Greek-Israeli relationship. We are just trying to understand if it will affect us,” said one Turkish diplomat. “We are trying to find out if there are elements that would seek to hurt us.”
Romania is another Balkan country recently developing military cooperation with Israel, but nothing much is known about it publicly. Romania, a member of the former Warsaw Pact during the decades of the Cold War, had tense ties with Israel as part of the Soviet policies of the time.
But now Romania, which after the end of the Cold War “changed sides” and joined NATO in recent years, has become one of the staunchest supporters of the United States in the alliance and enjoys very good political ties with Israel. Romania earlier this year made it clear that it actively wanted to join a U.S.-led collective missile defense system to counter potential missile threats from Iran.
The Israeli-Romanian military cooperation inadvertently became public when an Israeli heavy-lift military helicopter crashed in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains area in late July. Several Israeli soldiers were killed in the incident.
The helicopter, which probably crashed due to bad weather conditions, was a U.S.-made CH-53 Sea Stallion, called the Yasour by the Israelis. “One might wonder why an Israeli helicopter was in Romania in the first place. The answer is that every long-range Israeli Air Force operation today, wherever it may take place in the world, including in Israel, takes into consideration ‘third-sphere threats’ like Iran, which are far from Israel,” the Jerusalem Post, a top Israeli newspaper, said in an analysis published just after the July 26 accident.
“The Yasour helicopters in Romania this week, for example, flew nonstop from Israel and received midair refueling over Greece, something they do not get to do every day. That is why these training exercises are so important,” the Jerusalem Post said. “Israeli airspace is limited and flying in places like Romania, with lots of open spaces, also gives Israeli pilots the ability to train in new and unfamiliar terrain, especially mountainous areas similar to those in Lebanon.”