The officials said the approval had come as Turkey’s request that NATO station Patriot missile batteries along its border with Syria was granted, leading them to assess that NATO was using the deployment as leverage to induce Ankara to thaw its relations with Israel.
Turkey, a full NATO member, has been opposed to increasing Israel’s participation within the military alliance as ties between the two countries deteriorated, according to NATO officials.
Israel is a NATO partner and has accordingly participated in seminars, exercises and training as part of that status. But over the course of the past year, as new NATO activities were planned for cooperating countries such as Israel, Turkey objected to their going forward, according to Israeli sources.
NATO is a consensus-based organization where any one of its 28 full members can veto a proposal, though often opposition is conveyed through informal channels.
However, as Turkey’s request for the Patriot systems was approved by NATO and deployment began, a NATO work plan for 2013 that would include Israeli participation in a range of courses and conferences went through.
Israeli officials don’t think the timing was a coincidence.
“At the last minute – and I think it was dependent on the Patriots – it was approved,” said one Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said that NATO’s joint exercise plans for 2013 had not yet been worked out apart from its activity in Afghanistan, an operation in which Israel has never participated.
A NATO official, also speaking anonymously, didn’t address the specifics of the arrangements with Israel or the decision to grant Turkey Patriot batteries but said of Israel’s connecting them: “This is their assessment of how elements are linked.”
Turkish diplomatic sources told the Post that “Turkey’s position did not change on this matter.”
The Israeli official stressed that the improvement at NATO “is not a total solution” to the rupture with Ankara and its adverse impact on the role Israel can play at the alliance.
Despite a slight easing of opposition to certain types of Israeli participation in NATO, Israel doesn’t see Turkey as having changed its overall policy toward the Jewish state. Israel hopes to establish closer ties with NATO, but Jerusalem still believes Turkey would continue to block such upgrades in its status.
The once close Turkish- Israeli relationship, which began to strain after the Islamist AKP Party took power in Ankara, fractured during the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010 that left several Turkish citizens dead after Israel Navy commandos boarded the ship trying to break the Gaza blockade.
NATO officials have been pushing for a reconciliation between the two important Mediterranean nations for the benefit of the alliance.
“We have a lot of common interests with Israel,” said another NATO official, pointing to the country’s expertise in counterterrorism, cyber security, missile defense and more. Yet as “Turkey has made no secret” of its opposition to upgrading Israeli involvement after the break between the two countries, he said the issue ultimately needs to be resolved at the country-tocountry level.
“We would like the issue to be resolved sooner rather than later,” he said. “For the time being we’re trying to find ways to keep the conversation going with Israel.”
Matthew Mark Horn, a former Pentagon official who worked on NATO issues and started the NATO-Israel program for the American Jewish Congress, said there’s frustration with Turkey among NATO members for blocking Israeli participation, but there’s also respect for Turkey given its important strategic and geographic position.
Horn said Israel’s approval for participation in the 2013 work plan and other traditional NATO activities was “an extremely positive sign” of an improvement in Israel’s position.
But ultimately, Horn emphasized, Turkey and Israel would have to fix their relationship in a bilateral rather than multilateral framework.
“It is incumbent on both sides to sit down and to resolve any differences,” he said.