ANKARA — The recent thaw in diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel is raising questions as to whether Turkey’s procurement authorities will end a de facto ban on arms imports from Israel, once a major partner.
“The apology is a first step for the normalization of political ties, but it is too premature to think this will immediately pave the way for a return of Israeli contenders to the Turkish market,” a senior Turkish procurement official here said. “We must first wait and see if the detente will lead to full normalization.”
On March 22, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for the first time since coming into power in 2009, and voiced regret for the loss of life in the Mavi Marmara incident, apologizing for any operational mistakes that led to the death of nine Turkish activists aboard a flotilla heading for Gaza in May 2010.
Breaking a three-year deadlock, the two agreed to normalize relations. But on March 24, Erdogan told a crowd of party supporters that normalization of ties would only take place if Israel implemented the conditions of the deal discussed with Netanyahu.
“We need a stable period of confidence-building measures before we seriously sit down and discuss projects with Israeli suppliers,” the procurement official said. “If normalization happens, we will view Israeli companies like any other foreign company and think that business is business. At the moment, there is too much political contamination in the air.”
Soon after the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey and Israel froze diplomatic relations and cooperation in many fields, including defense and security. Since then, Israeli companies privately have been seeking Turkish deals, especially in the homeland security field, electronic- and software-related subsystems and advanced technology, according to Turkish officials. But Turkish companies, especially state-owned enterprises, have refused to do business with Israeli companies, they said.
“A direct or indirect nod from Erdogan’s office would signal a gradual return to normalcy in defense business with Israeli companies,” a board member of a state-owned defense company said. “But for that to happen, the thaw must proceed and lead to full restoration of diplomatic ties.”
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s office, here, said it would be wrong if one had too high expectations for the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation.
“Political realities have pushed both countries toward normalizing relations, toward cooperation. But the two are unlikely to return to their strategic relationship in the foreseeable future. Unlike in the 1990s, they will not become close allies again,” he said.
During the decade before the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey was a major export market for Israeli defense companies. Israel Military Industries (IMI) upgraded 170 Turkish M60A1 tanks, bringing them to a level approaching the Merkava Mark III in a nearly $1 billion deal. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) sold the Turkish Air Force advanced UAVs and ground control stations. IAI also upgraded a batch of 54 Turkish F-4 fighter jets.
“We don’t expect an immediate return to the good old days,” an Israeli company official said in a telephone interview. “But we see no reason why cooperation in key defense systems should not resume in line with normalization of political relations. We expect the Turks to understand that their military and local industry largely benefited from Israeli-related programs, and they still can.”
He added: “Trading flourished during the crisis in bilateral relations. If nondefense trade flourished in bad times, why shouldn’t defense trade normalize in better times?”
Two-way trade between Turkey and Israel has risen by around 30 percent since 2010, despite a slight drop last year, according to official figures.
Signs of a political and subsequently defense-related thaw came early this year, when Israel’s Elta supplied Turkey with military equipment in the first such deal since 2010. Elta delivered $100 million worth of electronic equipment for four airborne early warning and control aircraft Boeing is building for the Turkish Air Force.