Embracing the enemy's enemy
Israel is reconfiguring its strategic relations, in particular reaching out to historic foes of Turkey as Ankara turns its back on Tel Aviv, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Many Israelis were surprised that newspapers in Bulgaria published photos at the beginning of this month showing Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov with Mossad Chief Meir Dagan in the premier's office in the capital Sofia. The protocol is not to document the activities and meetings of the head of Mossad when he is on visits overseas. No matter, decision-makers in Tel Aviv are very satisfied with the outcome of Dagan's tour, which also included Balkan states, because it is opening the door for unique and key strategic opportunities.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman even asked research centres at the Intelligence Department and Foreign Ministry to write a comprehensive report on how best to invest potential resources to boost relations between Israel and the Balkans. It is especially focussed on Greece and Bulgaria, in the wake of a serious decline in relations with Turkey after the events of the Freedom Flotilla massacre when the Israeli navy killed nine Turkish citizens on their way to breach the siege on the Gaza Strip.
Lieberman urged that Israel must work very quickly to make up for losses after its strategic alliance with Turkey diminished, primarily through improving ties with Balkan states. The cost of a cooling alliance with Turkey includes an end to Turkish military privileges for Israel, such as allowing the Israeli Air Force to train in Turkey's airspace, close intelligence cooperation with Ankara, and permission for Israeli civilian flights to use Turkish airspace. Also lost are billions of dollars annually in arms deals with Turkey now that Ankara is turning to Europe and Russia for weapons supplies.
The loss of these privileges comes at a very critical time for Tel Aviv. Israel, which is always prepared to strike Iranian nuclear installations, and now more than ever needs the airspace of other countries for its pilots to train for this mission over similar topography as that of Iran. Now that Turkey has turned its back, Israel is seeking out Balkan states -- several of which have offered their services to Israel in return for economic benefits.
Barak Ravid revealed in Haaretz newspaper that during a trip to Israel, Bulgaria's Borisov asked for meetings with Netanyahu and Dagan to offer his country's services -- mainly to allow Israeli pilots to train in Bulgarian skies. Borisov also proposed security and intelligence cooperation with Israel. Ravid wrote that in return, Sofia wants Israel's help in developing its advanced technology capabilities and in sending more Israeli tourists to Bulgaria instead of Turkey -- the favourite destination of Israeli tourists.
Israel was also approached by Greece, according to Haaretz, during a secret meeting in Moscow between Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou on the sidelines of a trip to Russia. The two agreed to open Greek airspace to Israel's Air Force for training, since Israel's small size makes it very difficult for Israeli pilots to train on complicated missions that require longer flights. Other Balkan states have signalled their willingness to cooperate with Israel as well, including Romania (which has already opened its airspace to Israel), Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia.
Economic reasons are not the only motives for why Balkan states want to cooperate with Israel. Ravid discussed historic, cultural and religious reasons; most of these states are hostile to Turkey because they were under direct Ottoman rule for more than five centuries. Also, Islamophobia is growing in Europe, which makes many Europeans sympathetic to Israel in confronting the Muslim world, including Turkey.
Israeli Ambassador to Sofia Noah Gal Gendler talks about the historic and cultural reasons behind Balkan states cooperating with Israel, and Tel Aviv's haste in exploiting this opportunity. Sources in Israel's Foreign Ministry said that Greece's security and military departments exerted a lot of pressure on the political level for cooperation with Israel after the latter's relationship with Turkey deteriorated. Greece and Turkey are battling over the future of Cyprus, and the economic crisis that recently took Greece by storm persuaded Papandreou's government to seek alternatives through economic cooperation with Israel.
Haaretz also reported that developing ties between Athens and Tel Aviv are nurtured by good chemistry between Netanyahu and Papandreou, who speak with each other on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, Papandreou has assigned a minister to focus on developing ties with Israel, while Netanyahu picked Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon for the same assignment.
To this end, Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai and Amos Gilad, director of policy and political-military affairs at the Ministry of Defence, went to Athens to discuss strategic cooperation between the two countries and declared 2011 as the year of their strategic collaboration. In an indicator of the importance of relations with Greece, Israel appointed senior diplomat and prominent expert in foreign relations Arye Mekel as ambassador to Athens. The transformation in ties between Tel Aviv and Athens also expressed itself in Greece's voting patterns in NATO, where the Greek representative now automatically votes against any resolution criticising Israel.
The reason why Israel is investing so much energy and resources in developing ties with Balkan states is not only because its strategic relations with Turkey are fading, but also because Tel Aviv is concerned that Ankara will become overtly and publicly hostile to Israel. These fears are based on a report by Israel's National Security Council about future relations with Turkey, which described Ankara's revision of security doctrine as a very serious development.
The new doctrine labels Israel a country that causes problems for Ankara, while Syria was removed from the list of countries threatening Turkey. Iran's nuclear programme is not listed as a threat to Ankara. These parameters set the tone of the rule of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (JDP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Israel is also very concerned about a book written by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Strategic Depth, in which he asserts that Turkey's interests would be served best by settling all conflicts with neighbouring states. Davutoglu discusses Israel in a negative light and expects that it will be wiped out once it becomes a bi- national state.
Israelis feel that the new winds sweeping across Ankara are too strong to prevent deteriorating ties between the two sides, and at the same time the Turkish army's authority has been crumbling over the past two years. This was highlighted by widespread arrests of senior brass accused of attempting a coup against the ruling JDP.
Another point of great concern for Israel is the appointment of Hakan Fidan as the chief of Turkish intelligence, whom Tel Aviv claims is be close to Tehran. Israel's minister of defence noted this concern when he told Labour Knesset members that Israel shared top secret and sensitive intelligence with Turkey, and is now concerned that under Fidan Israel's secrets will be leaked to Israel's enemies, especially Iran. This would greatly embarrass decision makers in Tel Aviv, he said.
Israel is adopting the principle of "my enemy's enemy is my friend" in its new and advanced relations with Balkan states. It is manipulating historic and cultural hostilities between Turkey and these states to boost relations in all aspects, to serve its strategic interests. It also wants to strength its position in anticipation of conflict with Turkey in the future
The link: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2010/1025/re3.htm.