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Troubled Triangle: The United States, Turkey, and Israel in the New Middle East

Troubled Triangle: The United States, Turkey, and Israel in the New Middle East

by William B. Quandt

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In the years after 2009, the once-warm relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated sharply. To complicate matters further, both countries are close partners of the United States. In April 2011, veteran Middle East analyst and policymaker William B. Quandt brought leading scholar-practitioners from Israel, Turkey, and the United States to a one-day


In the years after 2009, the once-warm relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated sharply. To complicate matters further, both countries are close partners of the United States. In April 2011, veteran Middle East analyst and policymaker William B. Quandt brought leading scholar-practitioners from Israel, Turkey, and the United States to a one-day gathering at the University of Virginia. Their task was to unpack and try to understand the tangle of accusations, sensitivities, fears, and misunderstandings that had arisen among policymakers in these three capitals. Troubled Triangle is a record of their deliberations.

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Troubled Triangle

The United States, Turkey, and Israel in the New Middle East

By William B. Quandt

Just World Publishing, LLC

Copyright © 2011 Center for International Studies, University of Virginia
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-935982-12-8


The U.S.-Israeli-Turkish Strategic Triangle: Cold War Structures and Domestic Political Processes

F. Gregory Gause, III, University of Vermont

It is difficult to say that American policymakers ever viewed their relations with Turkey and Israel as part of a strategic triangle, with perhaps a brief exception in the late 1990s-early 2000s. Washington normally sees its relations with the two states through two different regional prisms. Israeli-American relations are seen as part of the more general Arab-Israeli or Middle Eastern strategic frame, and are deeply implicated in American domestic politics. Turkish-American relations during the Cold War had been viewed almost exclusively through a European lens, with occasional reminders that Turkey — because it borders Syria, Iraq, and Iran — had a role in Middle Eastern events. But Turkey was not seen as a major player in specifically Arab-Israeli dynamics. After the Cold War, Ankara had a role to play in Persian Gulf issues (in the two wars with Iraq) and, after 9/11, in Washington's engagement with the "Muslim world." This separation was expressed bureaucratically in Israel's location in the Near East Bureau (formerly Near East and South Asia) of the State Department and Turkey's in the Europe and Eurasian Bureau (formerly in Western Europe). The fact that the two regional allies got along fairly well with each other was seen, I would imagine, as a bonus, but not as a central feature of the bilateral relationships between the United States and them.

American relations with both regional states were largely, if not completely, defined by the Cold War international structure through the 1980s. In neither case did domestic political dynamics in the regional ally play that much of a role in the bilateral relationship. Although Turkey went through interesting changes and periods of intense domestic instability from 1946 through 1991, the strength of the Kemalist elite preserved a relatively consistent foreign policy stance toward the United States (obviously with some ups and downs, particularly over Cyprus). Likewise, domestic political change in Israel during the 1970s, when the Likud Party broke the Labor Party's monopoly over governance, did not change American-Israeli relations or views toward Turkey in any serious way. The end of the Cold War structural constraints on each of the three countries' foreign policies opened up space for domestic politics to play a greater role in how the three interacted, most notably in the case of Turkey but also in American-Israeli relations. It is the loss of that tightly constraining international structure that has allowed domestic political processes to become a more important, and more complicating, factor in how the triangular relationship works.

The Cold War and the Triangle

From the American perspective, relations with both Turkey and Israel during the Cold War were viewed overwhelmingly through the lens of the global bipolar structure. Turkey was a valued ally against the Soviet Union. America's first Cold War policy was the Truman Doctrine, which involved American aid to Turkey (and Greece). Turkey was brought into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1951. It was part of America's "Northern Tier" strategy of containing the Soviet Union in the Middle East, joining the Baghdad Pact and then the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) with Iran and Pakistan. It was one of the largest recipients, if not the largest, of American foreign military and civilian aid in the 1950s. The Turkish military was tightly joined to the American military, through the provision of American equipment and the officer corps' experience of training in the United States and service in NATO.

Turkey was a cornerstone of the American strategy of containment throughout the Cold War. This is not to say that the bilateral relationship was all kebabs and raki (or peaches and cream) during this period. The military interventions into Turkish domestic politics in 1960, 1971, and 1980 presented superficial problems for an American foreign policy that was, at least rhetorically, committed to democracy. The Turkish incursion into Cyprus in 1974 created real tensions and put at risk congressional goodwill toward Ankara. However, the overriding Cold War framework prevented an open break in the bilateral relationship, as both Republican and Democratic presidents sought to maintain good relations with Turkey despite congressional concerns. For the United States, Turkey was an important piece on the Cold War chessboard, not to be sacrificed for domestic political reasons — either American or Turkish.

Turkey's Cold War strategic view matched up almost completely with that of the United States. It saw the Soviet Union as both an historical (Russian) foe and an ideological enemy. The European and Western orientation of the Kemalist elite that dominated Turkish politics during this period also meant that there was strong coherence between Turkish domestic political orientations and its foreign policy preference for the American side in the Cold War. Even when the Democrat Party challenged the Kemalists in the 1950s, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes went out of his way to reaffirm the foreign policy tie to the United States, to placate his Kemalist critics in the military. In fact, the Menderes era probably marked the height of Turkish-American strategic cooperation. Turkey sent troops to fight with the United States in Korea, joined both the Baghdad Pact and CENTO, and mobilized troops along the Syrian border in 1957 as part of the failed American plan to bring down the Syrian government. Turkish leaders after Menderes might not have been as enthusiastic in their support for the United States, and some (Bülent Ecevit in the lead) did not hide their distaste for it, but good relations with Washington fit into Turkey's strategic imperative and its general domestic orientation toward the West.

Israel had a harder time at first finding its niche in American Cold War strategy. Although the United States supported the establishment of Israel diplomatically, it did little to aid Israel in its war of independence. Worried about how close ties with Israel would affect its effort to prevent the Soviets from making inroads in the Arab world, Washington kept the new state at arm's length in terms of strategic relations. The clearest manifestation of Washington's wariness about Israel's role in its global strategy was the Suez War of 1956. The Eisenhower administration condemned the British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt and put heavy pressure on the Israelis to give up their territorial gains in Sinai. However, by the 1960s, both the Middle East strategic picture and American politics were changing.

With Egypt, Syria, and Iraq increasingly drawn toward the Soviet side in the Cold War, Washington began to see Israel as a strategic asset against Soviet allies. Its victory in the 1967 War was an example of the superiority of American (and French) arms over those of the USSR. Unlike after Suez, this time the United States encouraged Israel to hold on to conquered Arab territories as a lever against its Arab neighbors. Close American-Israeli cooperation during the 1970 Jordanian crisis cemented the view in Washington that Israel was an important Cold War asset. Even the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 did not shake that view, which reached its height during the Reagan administration. American military aid to Israel increased enormously, from the first major arms deals in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to the substantial aid packages under President Richard Nixon, culminating in the post-Camp David level of aid that has been maintained ever since. While there were occasional periods of tension between the United States and Israel over the Arab-Israeli peace process, which took on a greater strategic importance for the United States after the oil embargo, during the remainder of the Cold War it was an article of faith in the American foreign policy establishment that Israel was a Cold War asset — or at least nobody in that establishment was willing to say otherwise.

The shift in American strategic relations with Israel from the 1960s was driven by Cold War dynamics, but it also squared nicely with the growing power of pro-Israel organizations and sentiment in American domestic politics. Although domestic political factors undoubtedly influenced President Harry S. Truman's decision to recognize Israel in 1948, it would be hard to argue that pro-Israeli groups exercised much clout in American politics during the 1950s. American aid to Israel in that period was minimal and President Dwight Eisenhower suffered no discernible negative consequences for his pressure on Israel after Suez. In the 1960s, the clout of Jewish pro-Israeli organizations increased, and in the 1970s and 1980s, Christian fundamentalist political groups came to take strongly pro-Israeli positions. Cold War dynamics and American domestic politics dovetailed in strengthening the American-Israeli strategic relationship.

There were some small reservations, immediately after independence, about close relations with the United States among the more left-wing elements of the constellation of Israeli parties that came to form the Labor Party. However, after Stalin's turn against Jews more generally in 1953 and the Soviet Union's alignment with Israel's Arab enemies during the 1950s, there was no discernible domestic opposition to close American-Israeli relations. On the contrary, Israeli politicians strove to prove to their own constituents, and to the American audience, that they were more pro-American than their rivals. Opposition parties lambasted their governing rivals for real and imagined declines in the warmth of ties with Washington. Speaking good English became almost a requirement to be prime minister. Domestic politics was not really a factor on the Israeli side in the bilateral relationship.

Although the Cold War was the main driver of American relations with both Turkey and Israel, it is hard to speak of a strategic triangle during this time. Turkey did recognize Israeli independence in 1949, but had voted against the partition resolution at the United Nations in 1947. Turkey set up an embassy in Tel Aviv in 1950, as it was campaigning for NATO membership, but did not staff it at the ambassadorial level. Israel courted Turkey as part of its effort to establish good relations with non-Arab powers on the periphery of the Arab world (Iran and Ethiopia). In 1958, the two sides agreed to intelligence sharing and military consultations, but the agreement was kept secret at the insistence of Turkey. Turkey declared its opposition to the Israeli territorial gains in 1967 and, after the oil embargo of 1973-74, tended to side publicly with the Arab side on Arab-Israeli issues (in return, most Arab states supported Turkey's position on Cyprus). In 1980, Turkey publicly announced a "downgrading" of its relations with Israel, and in 1988 Turkey recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) declaration of an independent Palestinian state. There is no evidence that the United States pushed the two sides together in their bilateral relationship to any great extent. In general, during the Cold War Israeli-Turkish relations were correct but not that close.

The Triangle after the Cold War

With the end of the Cold War, the overarching structural factor that defined the bilateral relations of the United States with Turkey and Israel was removed. While strategic issues were not absent from relations among the three after 1989, domestic political factors came to play a much greater role in bilateral relations, particularly between the United States and Israel and between Turkey and Israel. There was a brief period, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when one could speak of a nascent triangular alliance among the three states. It fit in well with the American regional strategy of "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran at that time, and it fit the view of the Kemalist military and civilian elite in Turkey about whom its friends and its enemies were, both at home and abroad. However, shifts in Turkish domestic politics, with the ascent of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002, put a brake on the development of the triangular relationship.

Domestic Politics and American Views of Turkey and Israel

The United States' view of Turkey continued to be driven by strategic considerations in the post — Cold War period, but those considerations were substantially different from the Cold War period. In the 1990s, Turkey was seen as a major asset in the Middle East, because of its support for Washington in the Gulf War, and as part of the "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran during that decade. It was at the end of this period that there were the only real manifestations of an American-Israeli-Turkish "triangular alliance" (to be discussed below), and that was relatively short-lived. After 9/11, Turkey was still seen as a major strategic asset, but less because of what it could do and more because of what it was — a democratic Muslim country, from 2002 with an Islamist government (of sorts), that had good relations with the United States. Turkish democracy meant that Turkey would not play an active role in support of American Middle East policy (as demonstrated by the refusal of the Turkish Parliament to allow American forces to enter Turkey as part of the 2003 Iraq War, and as the AKP's policy toward Iran from the late 2000s confirmed), and led to tensions in Turkish-Israeli relations (to be discussed below). Turkish democracy and the AKP government in particular are viewed in Washington as a mixed blessing. But without the overarching structure of global bipolarity, Washington can be more comfortable with Turkey charting its own path — as long as that path is not overtly anti-American, like that of Iran — than it would have been during the Cold War.

Domestic politics is playing a much greater role in American-Israeli relations in the post — Cold War period. The end of global bipolarity robbed Israel of its major strategic argument for the "special relationship" with Washington — that it was a stalwart ally against the Soviet Union and its proxies in the region. The fact that the United States had to pay Israel to stay out of the Gulf War of 1990-91 brought this changed reality home in a very direct way. Although Israel and its supporters in the United States have argued in the post-9/11 period that the two countries share a common enemy in the global war on terrorism, the opposite argument — that close American relations with Israel increase anti-Americanism in the Muslim world — is at least equally compelling. The persistence of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has helped Iran, the only major Middle Eastern state still following a "rejectionist" policy toward Israel, to increase its influence in the Arab world (though that is not the only factor). It is simply harder to make a strong argument that Israel is as strategic an asset for the United States as it was during the Cold War.

Despite that fact, there has been little change in American-Israeli relations. The two countries, occasional tensions on Arab-Israeli peace process issues aside, remain very close. Military and intelligence cooperation is very deep. Israel continues to be a major recipient of American foreign aid, far and away the largest recipient per capita and in many years the largest recipient in absolute amounts (in some years, depending on how one counts it, Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan might have received more aid than Israel). This can only be explained by a number of salient American domestic political facts: the generally positive American public opinion toward Israel, the variegated and extensive elite links between the two societies, and the active support of important political lobbies — both Jewish American and Christian — for the relationship.


Excerpted from Troubled Triangle by William B. Quandt. Copyright © 2011 Center for International Studies, University of Virginia. Excerpted by permission of Just World Publishing, LLC.
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Meet the Author

William B. Quandt is an emeritus professor of politics at the University of Virginia. He served on the National Security Council staff in the 1970s and was a key policy advisor to President Carter's team during the negotiations for the 1978 Camp David Accords negotiations and the subsequent Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Quandt was a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution for many years and has authored numerous books, papers, and articles on the Middle East.

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