Created in 1949 against the backdrop of World War II, the beginning of the Cold War and the threat of Soviet aggression, NATO is a military alliance composed of 28 states. The treaty itself, namely Article 5, considers an attack on one member as an attack on all members. This notion of “collective defense” provides an umbrella of deterrence, ostensibly lessening the likelihood of armed aggression against member states.
While Turkey’s role as the “southern flank” of NATO was important during the Cold War, and although its geo-strategic positioning and status as the only “Muslim” state in NATO add a modicum of value to the organization, NATO should revisit the idea of Turkey as a member state, and consider Israel as a viable alternative. If Israel’s primary threat is Iran and the militarization of its nuclear program, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated, NATO membership would be an invaluable asset in deterring its Persian foe and strengthening the U.S. hand in the current negotiations.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies are no longer aligned with the foundational principles upon which NATO was established, namely; free institutions, adherence to democratic principles, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Erdogan has clamped down on basic freedoms within Turkey in an effort to centralize power and prevent an ongoing corruption investigation. He has blamed various external “lobbies,” including the West and Israel, of plotting to dethrone him from power. These baseless accusations have served as a pretext for Erdogan to consolidate power by taking drastic authoritarian measures such as banning Youtube and Twitter, sacking police and removing prosecutors, initiating laws neutralizing the judiciary, and threatening his political opponents.
These draconian domestic policy shifts are paralleled by a foreign policy strategy often at odds with the West and specifically with NATO. Turkey was caught engaging in sanctions-busting oil for gold deals with Iran worth over $13 billion to Iran between March 2012 and July 2013. While NATO reaches out to like-minded democracies like Australia and Japan, Turkey reaches out to China and other repressive regimes around the world.
Turkey has held joint military exercises with China in Turkish airspace, has joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner, and uses Chinese companies for defense, which could potentially put NATO intel/tech at risk of interception by the Chinese army. It supports terrorist regimes in Gaza, i.e. Hamas and Islamist movements globally, e.g. the ousted Morsi regime in Egypt. Turkey’s interests also diverge from NATO on Syria, where Turkey has called for military intervention and has been accused of aiding jihadist terrorist militias now operating in the Syrian theater of war. Turkey also occupies Northern Cyprus, an EU member state.
Turkey is losing interest in NATO, where it has hardly any domestic support, and unlike NATO and the West, it refuses to see Iran as the emerging threat to global security. As for protection of Europe, one Turkish diplomat even went so far as to say Europe isn’t even in Turkey’s strategic mindset, and that it considers itself part of the “Turkey-Russia-Eurasia-Middle East” axis. Finally, Turkey is the only NATO state to be put on the gray list of the Financial Act Task Force, which combats terrorist financing. It seems Turkey only falls in line with NATO when its own vital security is at stake. For example, it accepted Israel’s participation in a range of NATO activities in 2013 reportedly in exchange for NATO Patriot missiles for its border with Syria.
By contrast, Israel’s threat matrix and NATO’s goals are converging. NATO and Israel both share an interest in missile defense; in fact, it is now a priority of both actors. Israel already has a robust missile defense program. Its native Iron Dome and Arrow II systems, as well as American-made Patriot batteries, are deployed throughout the country. Israel’s advanced military apparatus; its sophisticated intelligence and reconnaissance abilities, and its counter-terrorism and cyber-security expertise also make it a strong contender for NATO membership. Israel’s geo-strategic positioning renders it a good candidate to replace NATO bases now stationed in Turkey, bases that can be used for radar and missile defense systems to shield Europe and Israel from missile strikes (Turkey has gone on record to state its NATO bases will not be used to protect Israel), but also to deal with the evolving risks posed by the Syrian civil war and the broader sectarian conflict now setting the Middle East ablaze.
Full NATO membership would allay some of Israel’s legitimate security concerns regarding a Palestinian state along its eastern border. Moreover, admission into NATO would bolster Israel’s international legitimacy currently eroding due to movements such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and efforts undertaken by the European Union (EU). Finally, it would also deter Israel’s enemy to the north in Hezbollah, lowering the risk of a flare-up along the Israeli-Lebanese border and therefore providing more stability to the region.
In light of NATO’s “all for one, one for all” doctrine, NATO membership would augment Israel’s deterrence capability, and increase U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating power with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The threat of a NATO military response to Iranian foot-dragging, deception, or cheating in any way on the interim deal or a final deal would change the dynamics of the negotiating process and provide a push for the Iranians to sign a deal more satisfactory to Israel and the West. Finally, it would provide NATO with a militarily advanced, democratically like-minded, and most importantly, a reliable ally in the heart of the Middle East, where war is spreading like wildfire.