TEL AVIV — The Israeli Navy is expanding cooperation with the US Navy and other NATO maritime services and eventually aims to restore professional ties with Turkey after more than six years of estrangement, an Israeli officer said Thursday.
"Maybe in the future, we'll be able to see here Turkish ships in Haifa port for mutual exercises as we have in the past," said Lt. Col. Assaf Boneh, head of the Israeli Navy's international coordination branch.
Speaking to reporters at the conclusion of a visit here by US Navy Adm. Michelle Howard, who commands the US Sixth Fleet as well as NATO's Naples, Italy-based Joint Force Command, Boneh said an increasing number of nations are forging new ties or strengthening existing ones with Israel's Navy.
He noted that Howard's visit to Israel, her first in her dual-hat command role, allowed the Navy to share what it views as strategic challenges and opportunities in the region.
Hosted by Israeli Navy Commander Vice Adm. Eli Sharvit, Howard toured one of Israel's new German-built submarines, sailed on a Sa'ar-5 Corvette and visited the service's elite Flotilla 13 unit.
"We're a part of her vast area of responsibility, so this visit … contributed to furthering the cooperation between the Israel and US navies, which is already quite good," Boneh said.
The Israeli officer noted that Cyprus and France are planning to participate for the first time later this spring in a traditionally trilateral exercise called Noble Dina, designed to increase maritime proficiencies among participating nations.
Up until a break in Israel-Turkey relations in 2010, traditional participants in the annual Noble Dina drill involved Israel, the United States and Turkey. In recent years, however, Greece has been a regular participant in the trilateral drill, which in April 2016 involved a US Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, a P-3C for anti-submarine scenarios and replenishment provided by US Military Sealift Command.
The enlarged five-nation Noble Dina 2017 drill will continue to focus on joint maneuvers that enhance security, stability and regional cooperation, the Israeli officer said.
Yet another trilateral drill involving the Israeli, US and Hellenic navies is planned for the current year, Boneh said. That drill, dubbed Reliant Mermaid, is primarily focused on search and rescue operations.
In parallel to its multilateral joint exercises, the Israeli Navy is working bilaterally with the United States and a spectrum of other friendly nations to enhance cooperation and military exchanges.
In November, the British HMS Bulwark, part of the Royal Navy’s Joint Expeditionary Force Task Group, spent nearly a week here on joint drills and rest and relaxation for its 560-member crew.
The service periodically conducts bilateral maneuvers with the French, Italian and Cypriot navies, and in late September, the Israeli Navy sent a submarine and two surface ships to the Italian Navy’s Taranto base.
In an interview prior to his retirement last September as the Israeli Navy commander, Vice Adm. Ram Rothberg noted that coalition building had become a priority for the Israeli service. "We are trying to create a different dynamic of understanding what it means to be in a coalition, how to build it up wisely and properly … because when we look at this naval theater of ours, it’s very congested. The naval domain takes on even greater significance as an extension of national presence," Rothberg told Defense News at the time.
In addition to Greece, Rothberg cited France, Italy, Cyprus and the UK as nations with whom his service was cultivating stronger ties. However, he noted that by far the bulk of cooperation has been and will remain with Israel’s chief ally, the United States.
As for Turkey, Boneh, the junior Israeli officer, noted that Ankara acceded to Israel opening up a liaison office to NATO last year — something that has paved the way for more direct Israel coordination with the alliance. "It opened up doors for us, and our governments have renewed relations … but the military-to-military aspect will be [restored] gradually, step by step."
Israel and Turkey signed a reconciliation deal in June 2016 after a rupture prompted by the May 2010 Mavi Marmara affair, in which nine Turkish nationals died during an Israeli raid on a ship that had attempted to break Israel’s naval blockage of the Gaza Strip. Since then, the two countries have exchanged ambassadors, and relations are gradually warming.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.