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Israel’s concern with Turkey: Libya in the west, Azerbaijan in the east

August 20, 2020 at 12:00 am

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (R) hold a joint press conference at Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on 4 June 2020. [Metin Aktaş – Anadolu Agency]

Over time, Turkish-Israeli relations have grown increasingly tense and their differences have widened. This is due either to Ankara’s support for Hamas and its increased influence in the Mediterranean Sea concerning the conflict in Libya, or because Turkey is competing with Israel in the Caucasus region, where the Israeli area of influence in Azerbaijan increases their polarisation and rivalry.

The Turks being stationed in the Mediterranean is a source of Israeli concern, claiming its negative impact on the future of its gas, which is in danger after Ankara announced its intention to drill off the coast of Libya. This indicated its expansion ambitions in the region.

Meanwhile, the Israeli reading of the internal war and external polarisation in Libya suggests that Turkish President Erdogan cautiously used the military and economic crisis of the Tripoli government led by Fayez Al-Sarraj, and signed a series of agreements and military cooperation. He also established maritime borders between them, according to international maritime law that allows them to go beyond 400 miles from their territorial waters.

Israel observed Turkey’s moves, especially with the increased discovery of gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, resulting in forming alliances and agreements between countries that began to define their economic maritime zones in a timely manner. Hence, the race to locate and develop gas fields began, and Israel entered into an economic and strategic cooperation group with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt.

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Israel expects that the boldness of Turkey will grow in the future, and this is not what Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus want. Even if the conflict is focused in the diplomatic arena, the chances of a physical confrontation at sea seem realistic, as what happens in Libya greatly concerns Israel. This makes Israel in need of an organised campaign towards Turkey, so that it is not suddenly surprised, as surprises can come from several directions, including the Palestinian-Turkish cooperation in the gas field off the coast of Gaza.

At the same time, Israel is awaiting the chances of a naval confrontation between Turkey and Greece, in the area between Crete and Libya. Given its rapprochement in recent years with Greece and Cyprus, this may require increased manoeuvring with the support it expects from its allies in the region, in the face of Turkish policies.

In a related context, Israel, Greece and Egypt are jointly facing what has become known as the “Turkish challenge”, which confronts them with harsh tests. This may carry predictions that the escalation of conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean may reach the degree of deterioration towards a military confrontation, in light of the Israeli reading of Turkey’s behaviour at the geostrategic and economic level. This focuses on the demarcation of the naval borders in the Eastern Mediterranean, which is an issue of great importance to Israel, because it raises concerns about military clashes over economic activity near the energy shores.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar (R) meets with Qatari Defense Minister Khalid Bin Mohammed al-Attiyah (L) and Libyan Deputy Defense Minister Saladin en-Nemrush (C), in Tripoli, Libya on 17 August 2020. [Arif Akdoğan - Anadolu Agency]

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar (R) meets with Qatari Defense Minister Khalid Bin Mohammed al-Attiyah (L) and Libyan Deputy Defense Minister Saladin en-Nemrush (C), in Tripoli, Libya on 17 August 2020. [Arif Akdoğan – Anadolu Agency]

Considering the Iranian challenge and the northern front facing Israel these days, it prefers not to be an active partner in a potential military confrontation alongside Greece or Egypt against Turkey, but it may help by strengthening intelligence cooperation, security purchases and political coordination in Washington. Israel does not hide its fear of the expansion of the arenas in which Turkey is active, because it casts a shadow over its strategic ambitions on the future of the Eastern Mediterranean and the division of its of economic waters.

Israel believes that its “battle” against Turkish aspirations in the Eastern Mediterranean is faced with a number of regional and powerful factors that affect the balance of power. Egypt is under double pressure – from Ethiopia on the issue of the Renaissance Dam, and the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood on the Libyan front. These two issues have become of existential importance to the Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi regime, which creates the possibility of a clash between Egypt and Turkey.

The information available to Israel indicates that Greece fully supports the Egyptian moves in Libya, but it is doubtful that it will be able to intervene in a military confrontation against Turkey. As for what Israel could do, if the conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean escalated to the point of deterioration into a military conflict, it will not be able to directly participate in the fight against Turkey, whether with Greece and Cyprus, or with Egypt in Libya.

Deepening Israeli intelligence cooperation with Greece and Egypt remains an essential component of adequate preparation for the challenge posed by Turkey. With joint military activities focusing on air force and naval exercises, and by participating with the US forces on strengthening relations while maintaining the regional balance of power, this will allow for the solidification of the Israeli navy in the face of the Turkish naval armament.

In another arena of confrontation, the polarisation between Turkey and Israel has moved from Libya to the Caucasus region, especially after discovering the faultiness of the drones that Azerbaijan bought from Tel Aviv. This could clear the way for Erdogan to drive a wedge between Baku and Tel Aviv, and sell his military equipment to the Azeris.

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While Israel is still the leading force in the field of drones, Turkey’s successful military moves in Libya and its use of Turkish drones against the Russian defence systems given to General Khalifa Haftar, have triggered the Turkish army’s appetite for this Armenian-Azeri sphere that they have been looking forward to for many years.

All this confirms that the Israeli interpretation of Turkey’s ambition during Erdogan’s rule indicates that it has become a central power in the region, and its forces are currently stationed in Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Somalia and Libya. Moreover, in the field of energy it aspires to have more influence, and after signing the naval border agreement with Libya, it is now looking forward to a similar model towards the sister state of Azerbaijan, which may push Israel to develop cooperation with it.

For many years, Turkey has watched with concern the vital military and economic cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan – the only Shia Muslim country in the world that maintains full diplomatic relations with Israel and has close ties to it. There are warm bonds between the two, which reached their peak in the first decade of the 21st century.

It is worth noting that when relations between Israel and Turkey were as usual, the Turks did not care about security cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel. But with the deterioration of Ankara and Tel Aviv’s relations, and Erdogan’s increased regional aspirations, tensions increased. We may be able to see Turkey’s effort as the first of its kind to compete with the Israeli arms export market and an attempt to remove it from the Caucasus region, tarnishing its image as being an effective and high-quality security provider.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.