Date: 1/9/2003


.........Israel, India, and Turkey: Triple Entente? Ilan Berman

.................Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002


On September 11, as al-Qa‘ida cells prepared to launch their assaults on Washington and New York, a remarkable event was taking place half a world away. In New Delhi, Israeli defense and intelligence officials, led by National Security Advisor Uzi Dayan, were meeting with their Indian counterparts to discuss the common threats facing their two countries. When pressed on the issue, a spokesman from India's ministry of external affairs described the talks as routine, part of a larger, ongoing "strategic dialogue" with Israel on topics ranging from Afghan terrorism to Iranian missile development.[1]

Yet, the meeting was anything but routine. It reflected the quickening pace of a strategic partnership that has moved from relative obscurity to the center of Israel's foreign policy agenda. The ties between New Delhi and Jerusalem may have evolved largely away from the international spotlight over the past decade. But they have yielded a strategic dialogue that in many ways mirrors Jerusalem's extensive—and very public—ties with Turkey.

Both relationships are now poised on the brink of redefinition. Spurred by a growing consensus on emerging threats and an expanding agenda of shared regional interests, Israel, India, and Turkey are drifting closer together. The implications of this growing convergence are profound, both for the countries themselves and for the United States, whose policy toward the Middle East is sure to be influenced by what analysts are already describing as a new "Eurasian" alliance.[2]

Parallel Partnerships

The emerging Israeli-Turkish-Indian connection is hardly unexpected. In many ways, it marks the logical evolution of a pair of strategic relationships that have charted remarkably similar trajectories for the better part of the past decade.

Common origins. The new relationships are the product of the end of the Cold War, which prompted foreign policy reorientations in all three countries.

For Turkey, the Soviet Union's collapse and the Kuwait war have driven an overall reassessment of Ankara's regional ties. The Middle East now looms large as a possible source of threats that Turkey might have to face alone, since it cannot be certain that its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will come to its aid should Turkey be threatened from the south.

India's about-face has reflected a similar post-Cold War rethink. With the Soviet collapse, India lost its longtime military supplier and principal diplomatic crutch. It has also grown increasingly disenchanted with Arab sympathy for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue—a sympathy that has grown with the spread of Islamism in Arab countries. The changes have prompted India to revamp its relations with the United States and with regional states.

Israel, too, has had to reconsider its regional ties. To be sure, while the end of the Cold War removed one strategic motive from U.S. support for Israel, the U.S.-Israel alliance has other powerful rationales. But Israel also seized the opportunity created by the euphoria of the 1993 Oslo agreements to diversify its strategic relationships, especially with states that reside in the "periphery" beyond the belt of hostility that still surrounds it.

Shared goals. In the musical chairs of regional alignments, the end of the Cold War has created durable strategic rationales for the new partnerships between Turkey and Israel, and India and Israel.

In Ankara, early fears of a diminished post-Cold War role were replaced by a renewed understanding among Turkish policymakers of their country's strategic importance. As then-foreign minister Hikmet Çetin eloquently argued in 1993, the retraction of Soviet power from the Middle East had transformed Turkey from a "flank" state to a "frontline state faced with multiple fronts."[3] In no small measure, this sober reassessment of regional threats has been responsible for a retooling of the nation's military strategy toward a substantially broader conflict scenario in the Persian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean.[4] Within the Turkish military—the main driver of Ankara's strategic relationship with Jerusalem—cooperation with Israel is perceived as essential to fulfilling this demanding security agenda.

Like Turkey, India's security environment has undergone a dramatic redefinition. Faced with a burgeoning post-Cold War Sino-Pakistani military relationship—particularly in the field of missile proliferation—Indian policymakers now plan for an expanded threat from both Islamabad and Beijing.[5] Given Israel's leading role in defense development, this has resulted in a natural gravitation toward Jerusalem by New Delhi—a drift that has been compounded by concerns about the reliability of other military suppliers, such as Russia.[6]

For its part, Israel has looked upon ties with Turkey and India as ballast in an increasingly storm-prone Middle East. Now that the "peace process" has unraveled, Jerusalem is even more focused on external strategic partnerships beyond the Arab "envelope," to supplement Israel's own strategic capabilities.

Overlapping threats. Quite logically, given these similar roots and security agendas, shared perceptions of regional dangers have come to define the contours of each relationship.

Common worries animate the strategic dialogue between Ankara and Jerusalem, on topics ranging from Syrian belligerence, to Iran's quest for ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, to Syrian and Iranian sponsorship of terrorism.[7] Since initial overtures in 1993 and 1994, strategic ties between Israel and Turkey have evolved into a broad framework of intelligence cooperation, joint training, military-to-military exchanges, and cooperative defense development. Under a 1996 agreement, the armies and navies of both countries regularly conduct joint exercises, and Israeli pilots routinely use Turkey's vast airspace for flight training. And in perhaps the most significant expansion of this dialogue, the two countries—along with the United States—have participated since 1998 in recurring search-and-rescue exercises, dubbed "Reliant Mermaid," in the eastern Mediterranean.

As these initiatives indicate, the Israeli-Turkish relationship realizes the important goal of providing an expanded deterrent for both countries. Its practical utility was demonstrated in October 1998, during Turkey's showdown with Syria over the latter's support for the separatist Kurdish Worker's Party (Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan, or PKK). Many in Ankara regarded Syria's eventual capitulation to the Turkish ultimatum to be a product of a perceived threat of coordinated Israeli-Turkish military action.[8]

Israel and India, though lacking the immediacy of threats shared by Ankara and Jerusalem, face parallel dangers from hostile regional nations, some of which have acquired ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. This has afforded Jerusalem and New Delhi a basis for dialogue, one which, as Martin Sherman and M. L. Sondhi explain, is underpinned by the realization that among "India's potential (and indeed current) antagonists are countries and organizations which may pose a threat to Israel in time to come, or are likely to ally themselves with Israel's adversaries in some future conflict."[9]

As a result, contacts between the two countries, which began just months after India's formal recognition of the Jewish state in January 1992, quickly evolved into a robust military and defense dialogue which today includes steady military-to-military contacts (more than fifty liaisons between 1992 and 2000) and intelligence sharing, as well as counterterrorism coordination. Jerusalem has also become an important player in a number of prominent Indian defense projects, ranging from aircraft upgrades to the development of the Arjun main battle tank.[10] This cooperation is geared toward providing both countries with an expanded military and strategic deterrent neither one can achieve on its own.

Missile Defense

Against this backdrop, two topics—missile defense and counterterrorism—have provided the partnerships with an expanded agenda for cooperation.

The first, missile defense, has been made possible by a new U.S. administration focused on countering the threat posed by ballistic missiles. President George W. Bush, in keeping with his campaign pledge to "build effective missile defenses, based on the best available options, at the earliest possible date,"[11] has given priority to plans for a layered anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system to protect the United States. Administration officials have made it clear that cooperation with U.S. allies abroad is essential to these plans.

This policy constitutes a reversal of the near-moratorium on international missile defense cooperation that prevailed during the Clinton administration. Throughout the 1990s, the White House's reticence to implement an expanded missile defense agenda led the United States to spurn proposals regarding Turkey's integration into the joint U.S.-Israeli Arrow theater missile defense (TMD) project, as well as the sale of the Arrow to Ankara. These lukewarm reactions had a chilling effect on the emerging missile defense dialogue between Israel and Turkey, despite both countries' interest in cooperation and a consensus on regional threats.

Now, Washington's newfound support has reinvigorated this dialogue. Jerusalem and Ankara have stepped up missile defense talks and have gone public with their discussions about a cooperative missile shield to protect both countries against regional ballistic missile threats.[12] The two countries have also adeptly maneuvered their dialogue into alignment with the Bush administration's missile defense plans. In addition to exploring an expanded Israeli role in the White House's missile defense system, Washington, Jerusalem, and Ankara have already launched talks about a U.S.-backed regional missile shield.[13]

Opportunities to integrate India into this dialogue appear to be growing as well. Facing a potential missile threat from both Pakistan and China, New Delhi has begun work on indigenous anti-ballistic missile defenses and has opened consultations with Jerusalem regarding the development of a joint ABM system between the two countries.[14] As part of this process, India has also moved into alignment with U.S. plans. In August 2001, a prominent Indian think tank, the Security and Political Risk Analysis (SAPRA), in analyzing New Delhi's options for homeland defense, concluded that support of U.S. national missile defense (NMD) efforts represented an "optimal course of action."[15]

Recently, the prospects for missile defense cooperation among all three countries have also been boosted by a major defense-industrial shift. In January 2002, the U.S.-based Boeing Company and Israel's government-owned Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) signed a joint memorandum concerning co-production of the Arrow theater missile defense in the United States.[16] The agreement has paved the way for the export of the Arrow to other U.S. allies as part of Washington's missile defense initiative. In the run-up to his February 2002 visit to Washington, Israeli defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer publicly outlined his intention to use the visit to press the White House to allow the export of missile defense technologies to both Turkey and India.[17]

Fighting Terrorism

Counterterrorism is the second area of overlapping interests. Terrorism comes in many forms, and each of the three countries has faced different local varieties—Israel, the terrorism of an array of nationalist Palestinian groups; Turkey, the violence of the PKK; and India, the threat of Tamil and Kashmiri separatist terrorism.

But beyond these localized terrorist threats, a more general threat looms over all three countries: the specter of extreme Islamist groups, which act as proxies of hostile regimes, and which pose very real threats to the domestic peace and order in India, Israel, and Turkey. It is perhaps no coincidence that Islamist extremism should threaten three democratic countries populated, respectively, by Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim majorities. The transnational character of Islamist groups is itself a factor that could drive all three countries toward enhanced cooperation in counterterrorism.

Al-Qa‘ida's attacks on Washington and New York have galvanized a broad international consensus about the threat posed by terrorism. For Israel and Turkey, this new focus provides an unprecedented opportunity to expand their strategic dialogue. As far back as 1993, Turkish officials were already acknowledging counterterrorism coordination to be a principal focus of the emerging Israeli-Turkish entente.[18] Since then, this issue has risen steadily on the agendas of both countries. In Israel, the growing power of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza, coupled with the emergence of Hizbullah as a major terrorist powerhouse in adjacent Lebanon, have become top items on the country's national security agenda. In Turkey, while the influence of Islamist organizations has been trimmed, the Turkish military remains rightly concerned about the challenge posed by their ideology to the country's secular, democratic rule.

It is thus not surprising that, in the aftermath of September 11, Israeli and Turkish officials were quick to affirm their cooperation with the United States in the war on terrorism. Both countries, threatened by Islamism and other forms of regional terrorism, seek recognition as crucial partners in Washington's antiterror coalition. As Turkish prime minister Ismail Cem remarked on a recent state visit to Israel, "We are the forefront of that coalition … which is fighting terrorism. There is no question about it."[19]

The post-September 11 strategic environment has also added an important variable to the Israeli-Indian equation. Counterterrorism cooperation has long been a facet of ties between the two countries. Israel has even dispatched security specialists to train and advise Indian forces in the disputed region of Kashmir.[20] Yet cooperation has traditionally been curtailed by a lack of appreciation for the interconnectedness of the threats both countries face.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States, however, Jerusalem and New Delhi have demonstrated a new accord regarding the terrorism threat posed by transnational Islamist extremism. The January 2002 visit of Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres to New Delhi reflected a growing Israeli acknowledgment of this enhanced opportunity for cooperation. In talks with Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, and defense minister George Fernandes, Peres publicly acknowledged Indo-Israeli cooperation as "a coalition without a choice because no country democratic or otherwise can forgive or be indifferent to the dangers of terrorism."[21] These sentiments are not limited to rhetoric. In recent months, the two countries have intensified their military-to-military and regional security coordination.

Toward Convergence

The similarity in the evolution of these two sets of strategic ties is intriguing. Just as important is the fact that Indo-Israeli and Israeli-Turkish ties have endured through regional crises such as the demise of the Middle East peace negotiations, the collapse of United Nations (U.N.) sanctions on Iraq, and Pakistan's nuclear detonations in 1998. In light of these changes, both relationships are now more critical than ever, as the Middle East moves toward an unpredictable era of proliferation and asymmetrical threats.[22] Now, with the expanded agenda provided by missile defense and counterterrorism cooperation, the two relationships appear to have all the components necessary for a historic transformation.

To be sure, certain constraints exist. Relations between Turkey and India have traditionally been cool—a fact attributable to the robust nature of Turkish-Pakistani ties. The military and strategic contacts between Ankara and Islamabad, forged during the decades of the Cold War, have proven to be durable. The two countries today carry out extensive military-to-military contacts, including joint training and war college exchanges.[23] Furthermore, Turkey's historic support of Pakistan in its stance on Kashmir has long served as an irritant to the Indo-Turkish dialogue.

India's deep and multifaceted relationship with Iran also remains a source of concern for policymakers in Jerusalem and Ankara. New Delhi views Tehran as an essential partner in the Islamic world, both as an ally to counter Pakistan's anti-India lobbying and as a conduit to the energy markets of Central Asia.[24] Recently, ties between the two countries have also assumed a distinctly strategic dimension. In April 2001, when Indian prime minister Vajpayee visited Tehran, the two countries expanded their strategic dialogue, much to the chagrin of Israel and Turkey. And the Islamic Republic has made no secret of its desires to draw India into its emerging anti-Western alliance with China and Russia.[25]

Yet, a number of changes increasingly indicate that these constraints might not impede a trilateral partnership. For example, there are growing signs of a new flexibility in Turkey's approach toward India. Over the past two years, Ankara has qualified its traditional staunchly pro-Pakistan stance on Kashmir—which advocates a solution to the conflict based on U.N. supervision—and has begun to call for a bilateral settlement of the dispute.[26] This change has been mirrored by an upswing in Indo-Turkish relations. It was on display during Bülent Ecevit's March 2000 visit to New Delhi, when the Turkish prime minister very publicly rejected Pakistan's diplomatic overtures. This raised the tantalizing prospect for Indian policymakers that Turkey could scale back its long-standing support for their regional rival.[27] And in the wake of September 11, Turkey's links to Pakistan have raised hopes that Ankara might use its political and strategic influence in Islamabad to exert a positive influence over that country's political orientation.

Indian policymakers also appear increasingly receptive to Israeli and Turkish worries about the threat posed by Iran. Despite the beginnings of an Indo-Iranian strategic dialogue, New Delhi has become more attuned to Tehran's missile ambitions, which have placed the Islamic Republic within reach of striking not only eastern Turkey, but Israel and western India as well. September 11 and Washington's inclusion of Tehran in its "axis of evil" have also dampened Indo-Iranian strategic contacts, setting the stage for a tightening of ties with both Ankara and Jerusalem.

Astride Asia?

These beginnings hint at the possibility of a monumental regional realignment. For Israel, Turkey, and India, a tripartite entente is in many ways the logical next step in their respective strategic partnerships. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the three countries seize the opportunity. But if they do, the resulting geostrategic triad could well redraw the balance of power in the Middle East.

For the United States, this potential entente is also an opportunity. All three countries—pro-Western in orientation, stable, and democratic— are natural allies for Washington. Their interaction, spurred by a mutual focus on regional deterrence, missile defense, and counterterrorism, could create a pro-Western nexus capable of dramatically bolstering both U.S. interests and initiatives. In fact, the prime beneficiary of such an entente would be the United States, since the triad would provide a powerful counterweight to the very states and movements that wish to undermine the U.S. position between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Islamist internationale.

American diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia is now preoccupied with putting out fires. But at some point, American architects should begin to think "outside the box" about building new security structures. When they do, they would do well to note the changes taking place in Ankara, Jerusalem, and New Delhi. And they would do even better to build upon them.

Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C., is the author of Partnership in Transition: U.S.-Israel Strategic Cooperation beyond the Cold War (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, 2000).

[1] The Hindu (New Delhi), Sept. 12, 2001.

[2] United Press International, Jan. 13, 2002.

[3] Cited in Duygu Bazoglu Sezer, Turkey's Political and Security Interests in the New Geostrategic Environment of the Expanded Middle East, Occasional Paper, no. 19 (Washington: Stimson Center, July 1994), p. 25.

[4] Þükrü Elekdað, "2 1/2 War Strategy," Perceptions, Mar.-May 1996, at

[5] Shankar Bhaduri, "The One and a Half Front Scenario," SAPRA-INDIA Bulletin, Apr.-May 1996.

[6] Farah Naaz, "Indo-Israel Military Cooperation," Strategic Analysis (New Delhi: Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Aug. 2000), pp. 969-88.

[7] Meliha Benli Altuni_ik, "Turkish Policy toward Israel," in Alan Makovsky and Sabri Sayar¸, eds. Turkey's New World: Changing Dynamics in Turkish Foreign Policy (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000), p. 65.

[8] See, for example, General Çevik Bir, "Reflections on Turkish-Israeli Relations and Turkish Security," Policywatch, no. 422, Nov. 5, 1999, at

[9] Martin Sherman and M.L. Sondhi, Indo-Israeli Cooperation as a U.S. National Interest, Ariel Center for Policy Research (ACPR) Policy Papers, no. 89 (Shaarei Tikva: Ariel Center for Policy Research, 1999), p. 9.

[10] For a full survey of cooperative Israeli-Indian defense projects, see P.R. Kumaraswamy, India and Israel: Evolving Partnership, BESA Mideast Security and Policy Studies, no. 40 (Tel Aviv: Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies), Sept. 1998.

[11] George W. Bush, "New Leadership on National Security," speech before the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., May 23, 2000, at

[12] The Jerusalem Post, July 29, 2001.

[13] Middle East Newsline, Jan. 6, 2002; The Jerusalem Post, Feb. 28, 2002.

[14] The Hindu, Nov. 22, 2001.

[15] Indian Express (Bombay), Aug. 6, 2001.

[16] Reuters, Jan. 21, 2002.

[17] Defense News, Feb. 4-10, 2002.

[18] Milliyet (Istanbul), Jan. 27, 1994.

[19] The Wall Street Journal Europe, Jan. 23, 2002.

[20] The Pakistan Newswire, Sept. 26, 2000.

[21] The Times of India (Bombay), Jan. 7, 2002.

[22] Gerald M. Steinberg, "Re-examining Israel's Security Doctrine," RUSI International Security Review—1999 (London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, 1999), pp. 215-24.

[23] Author's interview with retired U.S. intelligence official, Washington, D.C., Mar. 2002.

[24] P.R. Kumuraswamy, "Strategic Partnership between Israel and India," Middle East Review of International Affairs, May 1998, p. 43.

[25] Jomhuri-ye Islami (Tehran), July 4, 2000.

[26] Ishtiaq Ahmad, "Turkey and Pakistan: Bridging the Growing Divergence," Perceptions, Sept.-Nov. 2000, at

[27] The Hindu, Mar. 29, 2000.