Is Israel a national security threat for Turkey?

It would not surprise me a bit if the new National Security Policy Document (MGSB) were to list Israel as the “real” potential threat to Turkey’s vital national interests after the attack on the aid flotilla by the Israeli navy during which nine Turks were killed in international waters.

As the government is gearing up to make radical changes to the national security threats listed in this document, which is also called the “red book” or “secret constitution,” the threat assessment will likely reflect changing dynamics in the new security environment Turkey is facing today. The most important changes will include downgrading the threat level from Turkey’s neighbors in line with the government’s successful “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy, as well as a complete overhaul in the domestic theater.

The MGSB is not a legally binding text that the government and state agencies must strictly adhere to. Yet it functions as a guideline for the military and security agencies. National Security Council (MGK) meetings are regularly held under these general guidelines. In the recent history of the Turkish Republic, during which the military has generally been dominant in drafting the document, the “red book” listed many legitimate groups, including minorities in the country, as threats and included almost all of our neighbors as countries posing a grave danger to the national security of Turkey.

With the civilian authority becoming much more assertive and dominant over the military in recent years, the need has emerged to revise the MGSB to reflect democratic advances over the last decade. Even Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a remark earlier this year questioning the legitimacy of the document. He said that they, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), have undertaken major changes since coming to power and vowed to exclude domestic threats from the document.

What can we expect from this promise? First and foremost, the new document will exclude civic groups, including religious communities and non-Muslim minorities, from the threat list.

Even before any changes to this document, we have already seen the change in the mentality and attitude of state agencies. A historic religious service this month at the Sümela Monastery in the Black Sea coastal province of Trabzon and a scheduled service to be held at the 10th century Armenian Akdamar Church in Lake Van next month are taboo-breaking events in our young history, as the state for the first time has allowed such events to be held at these sites. The change will pave the way to further addressing the grievances raised by minorities and non-Muslims in Turkey.

Most importantly, the new document will no longer consider Muslim communities as a threat to the state. We have seen in the Ergenekon trial that a group of army officers conspired with a diverse group of civilians from the judiciary and bureaucracy to topple the government by waging a war against the faith-based Gülen movement. The evidence submitted to the court reveals that the suspects had planned to plant arms and munitions in houses affiliated with the movement and produce bogus witnesses in order to prosecute the peace-loving citizens of this country. When asked, suspects who are facing trial today tried to justify this heinous plot as part of their mandate given by the “secret constitution.” Of course, this does not mean that violent radical groups exploiting religion, like al-Qaeda, will be dropped out from the list.

On external relations, the changes in the MGSB will reflect the friendly approach the current government has taken with neighbors. Iran and Greece, Turkey’s once estranged neighbors, will not be considered as top threats to national security. Turkey’s concern with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran will not be diminished, but will be taken in a broader context as part of pursuing a “nuclear-free region” in Turkey’s neighborhood. Remarks from both Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in the past have announced this general guideline in Turkish foreign policy: “Turkey is very much opposed to nuclear arms in Iran as well as in Israel.”

The document may very well reflect growing concern about the Israeli government’s policies in the region in general, and in northern Iraq in particular. Allegations that Israeli intelligence operatives are contracting Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists to hurt Turkish interests are widespread in Ankara.

The non-responsiveness of Israel in the face of its violent attack on Turkish nationals in May, through its refusal to apologize and pay compensation to the families of the victims, does not help the already tense relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara. On top of that, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s baseless accusations leveled against the new head of the Turkish Intelligence Service (MİT), describing him as a pro-Iranian agent who might pass Israeli secrets to Iran, have exacerbated the situation.

The security document will be finalized in October at an MGK meeting and the debate is currently ongoing among relevant state institutions. The prime minister’s office will be coordinating the task and I have heard he is reading the drafts line by line. Israel still has time to patch up relations with Turkey by acting fast to close the flotilla affair and set the stage for high-level ministerial meetings.

I get the feeling that Israel has not yet fully grasped the gravity of the situation or how the incident was perceived by the Turkish public. Once the tense relations are factored into the MGSB, it may be difficult to revise, as the next overhaul will be in 2015. If that happens, Israel stands to lose much more than Turkey.

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