In a 2009 book, geopolitical analyst George Friedman made the following predictions: By the late 2020s, US-Turkish ties will become increasingly uneasy; Turkey will pursue aggressive regional expansion and portray itself as an Islamic power; by the 2040s, Turkish belligerent moves will frighten Israel.
It now seems that Friedman’s Middle East predictions were essentially correct, but his timeline was too generous. US-Turkish ties already became shaky, Turkey is already less secular and more aggressive, and Israel is already alarmed.
In 2020, the annual IDF assessment for the first time identified Turkey as a “challenge” to Israel. Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen reportedly told Arab leaders that Turkey is the “real threat” Israel faces rather than Iran, whose power is more fragile in the longer-term.
Israel-Turkey relations have been tense for years, with Ankara often adopting a harsh anti-Israel line. For some time, Turkey has been an ally of Hamas and supported its activities. The Turks also cooperated with radical elements in Jerusalem to expand their hostile influence in the city.
However, as time passes, the Israeli-Turkish rivalry could escalate to dangerous levels. An Israel-Turkey clash, seen as improbable not too long ago, may become increasingly likely by 2030.
Turkish nuclear threat?
Turkey is openly harboring nuclear ambitions. It previously signed a $20 billion deal with Russia for four nuclear power plants, to be built by 2025. But Ankara has its eye on more than just civilian nuclear energy.
In at least one case, President Erdogan condemned the monopoly that prevents Turkey from acquiring atomic weapons. His criticism singled out Israel, charging that it scares other nations with its alleged nuclear arsenal.
Notably, Israel’s defense doctrine stipulates that hostile actors in the region must not obtain nuclear bombs. This calls for using all measures including military force to stop emerging nuclear powers, wrote Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser.
A hostile nuclear Turkey will pose a grave problem for Israel and widely escalate their tense dynamic. However, bombing Turkey is not an option as long as Ankara and Washington are still allies, Freilich said. But what happens if US-Turkish relations sour? Nuclear friction and confrontation will then become likelier.
Israel-Turkey rivalry at sea
Turkey’s aggressive posture in the eastern Mediterranean is a growing cause for concern to Israel. Turkish moves undermine Jerusalem’s plans to export gas to Europe and threaten Israel’s energy allies in the region.
Notably, Friedman wrote that controlling the eastern Mediterranean is historically a prime objective for any regional power. The strategic zone’s importance is even higher now that it has become an energy hub. Moreover, Turkey is clearly aiming to achieve naval dominance in the region.
However, Ankara’s naval ambitions goes beyond energy interests. Its maritime aggression is part of wider aspirations, a recent Bloomberg article noted. Turkey wants to assert its position as an Islamic regional power and is boosting its naval power to achieve this aim, the article said.
Turkey is upgrading its formidable fleet with new weapons and submarines, an Israeli report warned this year. A hostile Turkish Navy could threaten vital Israeli interests in addition to gas projects, as Israel is highly dependent on maritime imports. On this front, too, the potential for a military clash could grow in the coming years.
Turkey’s anti-Israel attitude
As far as Middle East predictions go, things can always change quickly. However, Turkey’s hostile outlook will likely not change even if Erdogan departs. His ambitious vision is aligned with long-term trends in Turkish society, a study by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) says. Israel-Turkey friction is also part of a broader Turkish turn away from the West.
Moreover, Turkey’s anti-Israel attitude is a key piece in its quest for the leadership of the Muslim world, JISS says. To achieve this, the Turks court the support of Arab masses hostile to Israel by taking a hard line.
In parallel, Turkey is expanding its defense industries and aims to provide 75% of its military needs by 2023. This also doesn’t bode well for the future.
The study’s authors urge a cautious attitude as not to turn Turkey into an “active enemy” of Israel. However, they say that Israel must make it clear that it will use force to counter Turkish threats to vital Israeli interests.
In the bottom line: Given Turkish hostility, the issues at stake, and the strategic dimensions of this rivalry, a military conflict between Turkey and Israel will likely become a more realistic possibility.