Defense Minister Gantz Goes to Ankara

by November 2022
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz meets with Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar in Ankara. Photo credit: REUTERS

The ongoing rapprochement between Israel and Turkey was reinforced recently on October 27 by the visit to Ankara of Israel’s Defense Minister Gantz, following the groundbreaking and highly symbolic official visit of President Yitzhak Herzog in March. Gantz met with his counterpart, Hulusi Akar, considered to be one of the mainstays of the AKP government, as well as with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who in the last year or so has been leading the effort to heal some of the wounds he himself did so much to inflict until quite recently.

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For Erdoğan, the effort to draw closer once again to countries he has reviled in the not so distant past—Israel and Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—reflects, above all, the sorry state of the Turkish economy (which affects his political prospects in the 2023 Turkish elections). Qatar’s generosity and partnership is no longer sufficient to solve his government’s financial woes, as the Turkish lira continues its nose dive and unemployment surges. It was the rising economy that gave his party, the AKP, such a solid grip on the loyalties of millions rising from the poverty of the “gecekondu” (squatters’ shacks). It is the main imperative for his policy now.

At the core of the two countries’ mutual concern at this point is the growing challenge posed by reckless Iranian conduct.

What is in it for Israel, however? What led Gantz to announce, following the visit, that he had instructed the Ministry of Defense officials to work—“gradually”—to restore the security dialogue with Turkey? Clearly, at the core of the two countries’ mutual concern at this point is the growing challenge posed by reckless Iranian conduct. In recent months, this has become a highly specific threat to basic Turkish interests, creating common ground with Israel.

The immediate trigger for this new impetus for cooperation was the effort by Iranian agents to use Turkish soil for attacks on Israeli citizens—tourists or businesspeople visiting Istanbul—as an act of revenge against Israel’s alleged complicity in the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operatives on Iranian soil. For Turkey—an easy mark for penetration by the Iranians, with whom it shares a long border—such an attack would have been extremely damaging, not least because tourism (and air transit) have become quite central to Turkey’s national economy. All the planned attacks were foiled, however, and the would-be perpetrators either caught or put on the run. This could not have happened without a degree of intelligence cooperation with Israel. It is to this that Gantz was referring when he spoke of the resumed dialogue as saving lives.

The Iranian challenge to both countries is not, however, confined to such terror tactics. Israel and Turkey (and Pakistan as well) share an ally currently under active Iranian threat—Azerbaijan. It is close to Turkey in language, culture, and heritage as well in strategic terms. At the same time, since its independence in 1992, it has been a friend (and energy supplier) of Israel and a significant client of Israel’s defense industries. Following the Azeri success in the Nagorno-Karabakh War of autumn 2020, both Turkish and Israeli flags could be seen in the streets of Baku.

Within the last few months, Iranian threats against Azerbaijan have become more intense, backed by force concentrations and military exercises at the border. They are related, in part, to the innate (but probably overblown) fear of nationalist sentiments among the large Azeri ethnic population of northeastern Iran, as well as to the ongoing Israeli presence and alleged intelligence cooperation with the Azeri defense establishment. On November 2, 2022, Azerbaijan revealed the arrest of 19 men suspected of carrying out subversive activities on behalf of Iran. Rather than fold in the face of threats, the Azeri government is now preparing to take a step it has avoided for many years of establishing an embassy in Israel (whereas Israel has had an embassy in Baku since 1992).

For Gantz, a few days before the Israeli elections, this was another opportunity to remind voters of his role as a key interlocutor with the US defense establishment and regional partners.

All this, and the added factor of Iranian-made drones wreaking havoc in Ukraine (while Turkey sells its own Bayraktar drones to the Ukrainians, and Israel seeks ways to be of help without actually crossing the threshold of selling weapons) is reason enough for the two countries to establish a channel for security and intelligence exchanges. Israel also is encouraging Turkey to expel the active Hamas terror presence in the country. “I am confident that deeper defense ties between our countries may have a positive impact on developments in this arena,” said Gantz in his statement to the press.

There may well have been an element of political calculation involved in the Gantz visit, on both sides. For Gantz, a few days before the Israeli elections, this was another opportunity to remind voters of his role as a key interlocutor with the US defense establishment and regional partners, from Morocco to the Gulf. For Erdoğan, it was a chance to build a personal relationship with a potential key player in Israel. Still, the reasons for engagement transcend the political interests of the principals, and the dialogue is likely to persist. Alongside the security common ground, trade between the two countries continues to thrive and as Gantz pointed out, Turkey is Israel’s fifth largest trading partner.

Gantz did make it very clear to his hosts—in his public statement—that Israel’s ties with Turkey are not a zero-sum game with the close partnership built up in recent years with Greece and Cyprus. “Our ties [with Turkey] are a positive addition,” he said, “as we maintain strong partnerships with our friends in Greece, Cyprus, and the Gulf countries.” In effect, this precludes another Turkish dream: no pipeline linking Israeli gas fields with Turkey as an energy “hub” can be laid (for obvious geographic reasons) without Cypriot consent.

The Eastern Mediterranean energy map is an issue yet to be resolved. Israel has not yet responded to the recent Turkish–Libyan agreement, which revives the 2019 claim that the two countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones in the Mediterranean border each other (blocking the access of Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus to Europe). This step already led to the collapse of the Turkish–Egyptian dialogue. Back in the summer of 2020, Israel (under Netanyahu) declared support for a different map, drawn by Greece and Egypt. Whether Israel–Turkey rapprochement will lead to a new energy map for the region is yet to be seen.

>>  Insight from Israel: Read more from Eran Lerman

Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman is a former senior intelligence officer. He served as Israel’s deputy national security adviser (2009–2015), and prior to that as director, AJC Israel and ME office (2001–2009). He is currently the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a lecturer at Shalem College. @EranLerman
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