The breakthrough in the diplomatic impasse between Israel and Turkey may be driven by concerns over a possible military confrontation between the two countries in Syria, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
When Israeli planes bombed a suspected Hizbullah-bound arms convoy near Damascus on Jan. 30, they detected the presence of Turkish radar probing Syrian skies. This raised fears that inadvertent trading of fire with Turkey could trigger major military intervention, according to Israeli officials.
“If we send in the jets and the Turks do too, a misunderstanding about who is doing what and where could be lethal,” said an Israeli official involved in the deliberations that led Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to grant the formal apology Turkey has been demanding over the deaths of nine Turkish activists who tried to sail to Gaza in May 2010.
Since 2010, the Israelis say, their air force operations over Lebanon and Syria had met with aggressive gestures from Turkey — jets scrambled as if to intercept, or radar tracking which could in theory guide missiles against the Israeli planes, Reuters reported.
Turkish officials declined to comment on those accounts.
Robert Hewson, an IHS Jane’s airpower analyst, said that for Turkey, accustomed to aerial brinksmanship against its regional rival Greece, “the Israelis became the new Greeks for a while.”
Should Israel plan strikes in Syria, Hewson said, it would gain a “huge advantage” in having renewed relations with Turkey.
“Israel will want to be sure it has deconflicted itself on the NATO side of the border — the Turkish side,” he said. “If they can find a common cause over the Syrian issue, they will definitely be talking again — perhaps in a quiet phone call before any mission, to say ‘this or that is about to happen.’”
Turkey has denied there is anything more to the Israeli apology than national pride. Its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said on March 28 that the fence-mending with Israel “has no causal link” to Syria or Iran.
A Western official briefed on the situation around Syria said he expected that Turkey would voice objections through diplomatic channels, rather than militarily, if it felt Israel was overstepping its own security interests.
NATO’s top commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, who visited Turkey and Israel this month to foster their reconciliation, predicted that in the event Israel launches broad attacks in Syria, it would cloak its planes in electronic defenses strong enough to ward off shoot-down attempts from the ground but not to prevent detection by other U.S.-aligned forces like Turkey’s.
The Israelis, Hewson said, would want its de facto allies to have the minimum information required to avoid clashing with them over Syria, with their message being: “Leave us alone.”
Meanwhile on Wednesday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told Israeli media that “Turkey welcomes full normalization and returning relations between the two countries to what they were before.”
He dismissed speculation that Ankara was trying back out of the reconciliation.
“I expect the talks to succeed,” he said. “Normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations will improve the chances for peace in the region.”