Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Turkish-Israeli defense deals on hold

The growing Israel-Turkey rift that culminated in Ankara canceling Israeli participation in a multinational exercise threatens to derail already declining defense cooperation between the two countries, said officials from both countries.

Israel plans to withhold export licenses for the sale of defense articles and services to Turkey, and demote the country's standing from preferred to one that carries a presumption of denial, Ministry of Defense sources said.

"Any requests from Turkey will continue to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but now the highest political levels will have to be more involved in the process," one MoD official said.

Additionally, the official said MoD is not responding, for the time being, to requests from Turkish industrialists to receive technical briefings in Israel by their Israeli counterparts. Tentative plans called for MoD to host a visiting Turkish defense industries delegation in the coming weeks, but plans for that visit are now on indefinite hold, he said.

"We're not saying no, and we're not saying yes. We hope this crisis will pass quickly and that working relations will resume. But this decision must be made at the higher levels," the official said.

Tensions between the two countries have been escalating since Turkey harshly criticized Israel shortly after its invasion late last year of the Gaza Strip to halt a barrage of rockets launched against nearby Israeli towns by Hamas militants. Turkey also has repeatedly irritated Israel. At the panel discussion during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted Israeli President Shimon Peres for the Gaza war before storming off stage. Israel also bristled when Ankara hosted a state visit for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and for warming relations with Syria.

Peres, in an exclusive interview, cautioned against rash.

"We have to be careful not to appoint enemies ahead of time," Peres said. "We need a little bit of patience to read the map correctly not to fall victim to a passing mood; for that reason I prefer that we should continue a prudent appreciation of the situation."

For their part, Turkish officials and analysts said it would be practically impossible for Israeli manufacturers to win Turkish contracts before the two countries find compromise.

"We don't think there would be political will to award defense contracts to Israeli companies as long as relations remain as tense as they are today," a Turkish procurement official said.

Reserve Maj. Gen. Udi Shani, the director of Israel's arms export authority, said, "Business will always have to take a back seat to greater national security interests. But I say we shouldn't act hastily in closing the door on this critically important relationship."

The latest rupture in the increasingly bumpy relationship between Ankara and Jerusalem came Oct. 10 when Turkish officials abruptly canceled the Israel Air Force's participation in the massive annual Anatolian Eagle war game just two days before the multinational exercise was to have started.

Once Israel was dropped from the games, the United States withdrew, forcing Ankara to postpone the drill. Days later, Syria said it would hold military exercises with Turkey, but did not set a date yet.

Although the Turkish Foreign Ministry initially cited "technical matters" for the postponement of the international leg of the Anatolian Eagle military exercises - which meant ousting Israel from the drill - Erdogan told al-Arabia television Oct. 14 that the decision to cancel Israeli participation was due to the "Turkish people's wishes." Erdogan said: "I had to lend an ear to the voice of my people. They don't want Israel in these exercises."

A similar message was delivered Oct. 13 by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Visiting Aleppo, Syria, Davutoglu told reporters: "Israel must respect sacred values. When it shows this sensitivity, then an atmosphere of peace can be established. We want to have good relations with our neighbors. We are a state that has deep roots in this region, and we are open to dialogue with everyone. Hence, the tragedy in Gaza must end; East Jerusalem, Haram al-Sharif and the al-Aqsa mosque must be respected."

Anatolian Eagle was first held in 2001 and this year was to run Oct. 12-23 and include combat aircraft from the air forces of Turkey, Israel and the United States.

Relations between the countries further eroded in the wake of the decision, with Israeli officials expressing outrage at the slap. Turkish leaders responded that Israel would do well to keep quiet if it wanted to have any relationship at all with Ankara.

The two countries forged a strategic partnership in 1996 that eventually led to billions of dollars in defense trade over the past decade. Major programs included a $700 million deal to modernize Turkey's aging F-4 Phantom fighters, a $688 million deal to upgrade M60 tanks, the supply of long-range targeting pods and a host of other front-line systems.

Additionally, the bilateral relationship allowed for the Israel Air Force to use Turkish airspace to practice complex air operations that would otherwise be difficult in Israel's limited airspace.

In parallel to strategic ties, the warm relationship allowed Israel to claim alliance with a moderate Muslim nation, while nearly half a million Israeli tourists flooded Turkish resorts annually, often to the neglect of domestic tourist destinations. Turkey was among the first nations in the world to recognize Israel's independence in 1947.

One of Israel's largest trade unions last week said it would urge its members to stop taking vacations in Turkey, while Israeli government officials and executives expressed concern about traveling to Anatolia anytime soon.

Turkish procurement officials and analysts said, however, that two ongoing Turkish modernization programs involving Israeli industry would remain unaffected by the crisis.

Murad Bayar, Turkey's chief acquisition officer, said in late September that Israel Military Industries has already completed modernizing 150 Turkish M60 battle tanks and the remaining 20 would be finished before the end of the year, thus finalizing the $688 million contract.

Bayar added that Turkey's Undersecretariat for Defense Industries - SSM in its Turkish acronym - is preparing for critical flight tests of the Heron unmanned aerial vehicle. The program involves Israel's Elbit and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) as well as Turkey's Aselsan.

The Turkish UAV program has faced delays of more than two years, but a Heron fitted with a more powerful engine will undergo flight tests at the end of this month or in early November, Bayar said.

An Ankara-based defense analyst said he did not expect Israeli companies to even participate in Turkish contests. "You don't spend your time, energy and resources for contracts that you certainly know you cannot win," he said.

While most Israelis hope the latest rift will be short-lived, industry executives and MoD officials in Israel say the relationship has been steadily declining, along with defense orders.

From a high of more than $1 billion in new signed contracts in the late 1990s, MoD ledgers show new orders totaling not more than $80 million in 2007 and 2008.

One top Israeli defense executive, however, expressed a widely held sentiment that the Turkish-Israeli relationship actually died a few years ago and that the current rift is merely the public manifestation of a partnership that has long ceased. ■

Burak Ege Bekdil and Umit Enginsoy contributed to this report from Ankara.


The Turkish are going to the radical Islam line slowly but surely
The late Gazza war is only the excuse ....
What a funny world those who killed 500000 armenians and now killing kurds are telling us in Israel how to fight for our lives

I agree with uri, i had come to this conclusion quite some time back due to some actions taken by current turkish PM.turkey is surely losing its secular character founded by kemal ataturk.

Turkey agreed in 2005 to purchase 10 Heron UAVs for over $180 million from Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems, Ltd. Israel was expected to deliver four Herons in August, followed by another two and then the last four by the end of October, but has missed the deadline.

Frustrated with long delays and a never-ending run of difficulties encountered with the Herons, Turkish defense officials have turned to rival suppliers, hoping that the air force will get more reliable models .

"It is not the first time that Israel has failed to meet its commitments, at least in Turkish projects," one Turkish defense industrialist told Jamestown. He recalled that in many projects involving Israeli companies - including the modernization of Turkey's U.S. General Dynamics made 170 M60 A1 tanks and the joint production of counter-measure dispenser systems - Israel failed to honor its offset and technology transfer commitments.

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