Turkey’s leaders have called Israel the “West’s spoiled child,” and the “bully” of the eastern Mediterranean. When a Tel Aviv soccer team showed up in Istanbul recently for a match, the welcome was less than warm.
In September, Turkey kicked out the Israeli ambassador, suspended military and trade deals and threatened legal and naval action to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
As roars of approval went up around the Arab world, few noticed another announcement quietly slipped in by Ankara: Turkey had signed off on a plan to host an American X-band radar system as part of a NATO missile defense system that Washington hails as protection against an Iranian ballistic missile threat.
Turkey was careful not to identify Iran as the reason for the system, but the radar deal stung in Tehran. The state-run Iranian media said Turkey was only helping “the West continue its bullying policies in the region.”
U.S. officials, meanwhile, called it the most significant military cooperation with Turkey in years. They also made clear that data from this U.S. radar installation would be handled as in the past, including sharing it with Israel, which is not a NATO member state.
Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, says the radar agreement is a good example of what could be called the foreign policy pragmatist’s mantra: Take note of what they say, but focus on what they do.
“Turkey is very keen to keep the United States on its side. Turkey has to show that it’s a safe pair of hands to the United States, especially if it’s going to go around challenging Israel,” Pope says.
Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says the timing of the radar announcement — on the same day as the raft of anti-Israel measures — was no coincidence. She says Ankara was sending a message to a U.S. administration and Congress that have been skeptical of Turkey’s foreign policy.
“But I think the decision to install the radar system was Turkey’s way of demonstrating it’s commitment to NATO and the U.S.,” Tol says. “So basically Turkey said that it was against the policies of the Israeli government, but only the Israeli government — neither the people of Israel nor its Western allies.”
Iran and Russia are both critical of the NATO missile defense system, which includes increased deployment of sea and land-based missile interceptors around Europe.
Tol says with political upheavals rippling across the Arab world, Turkey may now be more important to the West than it was during the Cold War.
“Because we now see that after the Arab Spring, Turkey is considered a legitimate actor — not only by the Arab street but also by the democratic forces, which will play a leading role in the future of the region,” she says.
Not long after agreeing to host the radar system in central Anatolia, Ankara announced that it expects to base a fleet of U.S. predator drones on Turkish soil when U.S. forces withdraw from neighboring Iraq. Unmanned aircraft are a key part of Turkey’s fight against PKK separatists operating out of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.
In what some see as an interesting bit of irony, Turkey has been using drones made by Israel, acquired back when Turkish-Israeli ties were warmer. Analysts say if and when those relations thaw out again, some of the aligning interests between the two states should reemerge.