Expert’s Middle East predictions from 2009, escalating friction between Jerusalem and Ankara highlight growing danger of Israel-Turkey war.
In a 2009 book, geostrategic analyst George Friedman made the following predictions: By the late 2020s, US-Turkish ties will become “increasingly uncomfortable”; Turkey will pursue aggressive regional expansion, shun secularism and portray itself as an Islamic power; by the 2040s, Turkish aggression and expansion will frighten Israel.
It now seems that Friedman’s Middle East predictions were essentially correct, but his timeline was too generous. US-Turkish ties are already strained, Turkey has already become less secular and more aggressive, and Israel is already alarmed.
In 2020, the IDF’s annual 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 fragile.
Israel-Turkey relations have been tense for some years now, with Ankara adopting a harsh anti-Israel line. By now, Turkey is an ally of Hamas and supports its activities. The Turks also cooperate with radical elements in Jerusalem as they expand their hostile influence in the city.
However, The Israeli-Turkish rivalry is about to take more strategic dimensions. The bottom line: An Israel-Turkey clash, seen as improbable not too long ago, will become increasingly likely by 2030.
Turkish nuclear threat
Turkey is openly harboring nuclear ambitions. It has already 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.
Last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip 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.
Israel’s security doctrine stipulates that hostile actors in the region must not obtain nukes, a former defense official recently stressed. This calls for using all measures including military force to stop emerging nuclear powers, wrote Chuck Freilich, who served as 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 Ankara and Washington are still allies, Freilich said. But what happens if US-Turkish relations sour? Nuke-related 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 via the EastMed pipeline project 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.
Turkey is clearly taking steps to achieve naval dominance in the region. This includes a controversial maritime deal with Libya and saber-rattling against Greece. In one case, Turkish warships also drove away an Israeli vessel conducting research in Cypriot waters.
However, Ankara’s muscle-flexing goes beyond energy interests. Its maritime aggression is part of wider ambitions, a recent Bloomberg article noted. Turkey wants to assert its position as a Muslim 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 will grow in the coming years.
Turkey’s anti-Israel attitude
As far as Middle East predictions go, things could change quickly. However, Turkey’s hostile outlook will likely not change even if Erdogan departs. His ambitious vision chimes with long-term trends in Turkish society, a study by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security 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.
To sum up, given the issues at stake and the increasingly strategic dimensions of Israeli-Turkish friction, the potential for an Israel-Turkey war will likely grow significantly this decade.