“The PKK is priority in talks to Israel”

“The PKK is priority in talks to Israel”

Turkey and Israel are two influential countries in West Asia. Differences in the Palestine and Kurdish Questions, relations to Israel and conflicting positions in the Eastern Mediterranean have caused several major high-level crises between the two countries and led to restraint as well as downgrading in diplomatic relations. Notwithstanding this past, a revitalization and normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations is widely discussed in the international press. As Unitedworld.int, we open the debate on whether normalization is possible, on what conditions it depends and to what consequences it might lead. 

The opinions expressed in the debate do not necessarily represent the opinion of the UnitedWorld Editorial Board.  

Tensions between Turkey and Israel had escalated since the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010.  In 2018, Turkey and Israel reciprocally recalled their ambassadors after US President Donald Trump had recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and Israeli security forces had intervened against Palestinian protesters. Still, recently indications of rapprochement appeared.

“We sustain normal relations on level of intelligence with Israel, but we have difficulties with their top government officials”, stated President Erdogan in December.

Additionally, Mesut Hakkı Çaşın, Member of the Security and Foreign Policy Committee, remarked that if Israel takes a step towards Turkey, Ankara would respond positively.

Lastly, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the appointment of Irit Lillian as Chargé D’affaires for Turkey. Israeli media interpreted the appointment as an indication that Tel Aviv wants to repair relations with Ankara.

Elif İlhamoğlu discussed the future of Turkey-Israel relations with Ismail Hakkı Pekin, ret. Lieutenant General, former Head of Intelligence at the Chief of Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces.

“Bilateral commercial and intelligence communication continued during crisis”

It has been reported that Ankara and Tel Aviv recently exchanged positive messages. Additionally, Turkey might even appoint an ambassador to Tel Aviv in the near future according to press reports. What do you think about the course of the relation between the two countries? Can the two countries normalize their relation in the near future? What should the conditions of this normalization be in Turkey’s terms?

Turkey finds itself without allies in the region. The conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean, problems with Egypt, Israel’s agreement with the Greek Cypriot administration, and the normalization between Israel and the Gulf countries forced Turkey to search for regional allies. Israel than was considered as the most suitable option. In fact, the relationship between the two countries has not been disrupted fundamentally. Commercial and intelligence related communication was continued during the crisis.

Turkey’s primary concern now is the United States. Turkey requires the Israeli lobby in order to remedy that problem. Ankara needs that support to balance relations with America. This is the first issue.

Secondly, when in the past Turkey desired to purchase weapons ad faced limitations or embargos in Washington or Europe, the country used always to turn to Israel. Examples are the modernization of the F4s, or the fact that, when the Germans refused to sell us tanks, we modernized the M61 tanks bought from the US formerly with current Israeli technology.

For instance, when I first travelled to Israel, we did not have any high-resolution military surveillance satellite. The Israelis proposed me to use one of their own satellite. Their aim was of course to win the bid for Turkey’s satellite project; however, various talks and collaborations occurred about this issue. The two countries cooperated on defense technologies. In this sense, an important Chargé D’affaires were appointed by Israel. Turkey may appoint a Chargé D’affaires or ambassador in the coming days too.

One of the most important parameters in the relationship between the two countries is the Syria question. The establishment of a terrorist state there is on the agenda. Turkey will want to discuss this issue.

Mossad’s insistent desire

Israel supports the PYD, along with the USA. They have supported Barzani before. For example, I met with the President of the MOSSAD in 2009. He insistently told me: “Yes, you are sending a political delegation to Barzani, but you should also send a delegation headed by a lieutenant general to honor him.”

They insistently wanted us to send a military delegation to Barzani. In other words, they want to establish a Kurdish entity against Iran in the region, and they started with northern Iraq. Of course, when we take a look at north Iraq and northeast Syria, the establishment of a new state is a huge threat to Turkey. Israel and Turkey need to come to an agreement on this topic. In exchange, they can ask us to stop supporting Hamas. There might be discussions about them stopping the support to the PYD / PKK and us stopping the support to Hamas.

The other issue is Idlib. There are many terror organizations there. Some of them are connected to Heyet Tahrir al-Sham, some with al-Qaeda and others consist of Uighurs associated with Jaysh-ul Islam. All of these terror organizations there are connected to an intelligence organization. There are also 3.5-4 million civilians there. Turkey is providing accommodation and food to these civilians. Turkey is concerned that Syria may conduct a military operation with Russian air support there. In such as case, these people would migrate to Turkey. This is another topic on the agenda to be discussed.

Another issue is Syria’s territorial integrity. Israel wants to annex the Golan Heights. They use it as a strategic watchtower, and there is Lake Tiberias right behind it. The lake has cold water springs. They want to own these.

In other words, first the PYD / PKK issue, then the Idlib issue – avoiding provocation of terror organizations there – than the Hamas issue, and as last point cooperation. This is the meeting agenda between Turkey and Israel.

As I mentioned, technological cooperation occurred before too, we shifted always to Israel when we could not buy from other sources. Thus, Turkey was not dependent on a single source. Moreover, another area of possible cooperation is tourism.

“The bloc in East Mediterranean
can be disintegrated”

Taking your experience of operations conducted with Israeli Intelligence in the past into consideration, is it possible to build a relationship with Tel Aviv in the best interest of Turkey?

Today, one can state the following problem: at that time, when relations were good, Israel was isolated in the region and there were no Abraham accords. Yes, they had some relations with Egypt and Jordan, but there was no agreement with other Gulf countries. Israel was not so close with Greece, and Turkey was their only alternative and option. But now the situation has changed. They made an agreement with the Arab countries and Sudan, and they received a security there. They made an agreement with Greece, Southern Cyprus and Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean, such that a threat has appeared there against us as well.

So they have a stronger hand at the table. On the other hand, of the things Tel Aviv wants is to transport its natural gas from Cyprus to Turkey and than further to Europe. They have problems in delivering the natural gas to consumers. Therefore, they might demand this from us. In this context, Greece and Turkey can reach an agreement in Eastern Mediterranean. Of course, Greece is fanciful, demands the maximum, and an agreement is difficult. But Israel’s intervention might solve some problems and ease the negotiations.

Establishing such a relation with Israel does not mean that Turkey returns to the Wester Camp or its old international status. It means pursuing an independent foreign policy whenever possible, and establishing some points of reliance while pursuing it. In this sense, Turkey has relations with Russia. The US is of course unhappy about the Turkish-Russian relationship, and it tries to disrupt this relation by installing sanctions. Cooperation between Turkey and Israel serves Russian interests too. A more balanced policy against the USA would be implemented. There is already a relationship between Russia and Israel. In order to prevent Iran from dominating Syria, Israel occasionally attacks Iranian groups on Syrian territory, and Russia condones and allows this. There is also cooperation between Israel and Russia in the aviation industry.

“Cooperation with Israel means not returning to Western Camp”

Thus, cooperation with Israel could be useful for Turkey to overcome these problems. As I said, this does not mean returning to the Western Camp. In fact, if this cooperation is implemented well, that is, by not approving everything and making no concessions on every issue, then we will avoid the mandate mentality in Turkish government. A controlled policy can be followed.

In case Israel cuts support for the YPG, a consensus on the territorial integrity of Syria, excluding the Golan, can be reached. If Assad leaves, a government that would emerge there would mean chaos for Israel too. They do not want a structure similar to ISIS. Therefore, Turkey’s policy of “Assad must leave” should be re-evaluated in this regard. From our perspective, the most important point is to cut the support to YPG and to weaken the bloc established against Turkey in Eastern Mediterranean.

“Biden will follow institutional path in relations with Tel Aviv”

What is your expectation on the future of the ‘normalization’ policy, initiated between Israel and the Gulf countries during Trump’s era? On which policies will the Biden administration’s cooperation with Israel be based on?

The Abraham Accords will continue in the Biden period, as well. Biden says he will attach importance to diplomacy, but they cannot do so without using other instruments. These Accords are important, so they will progress them further.

Of course, I cannot say whether this process leads to establish an Arab NATO, a regional military cooperation against Iran in the future. But there are also obstacles on that path. Egypt does not want it would not accept it. Russia does not consider this idea positively. However, the Biden Administration will diplomatically progress further on this issue.

The Biden Administration’s relations with Israel will be of institutional nature. I use the term ‘institutional’, since Biden tries to avoid pursuing a one-sided policy on Palestine as far as possible. The Biden administration favors a two-state solution. However, he will execute an institutional agreement. The ‘Deal of the Century’ would definitely be put aside. However, I do not think there will be any development against Israel, except for establishing institutional relations. There is a strong Israeli lobby in the Biden cabinet too.

Ismail Hakkı Pekin

Retired Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakkı Pekin is the former Head of Türkiye’s General Staff Intelligence Agency between 2007-2011. He was born in 1951 in Iznik. He is married and is the father of two children.

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June 2024