Capstones: Time for Israel and Turkey to Pay It Forward

December 2022

With a revisionist Russia on the march, Ukraine is fighting for its very existence—and begging for help. With Vladimir Putin’s war of war crimes on their doorstep, Sweden and Finland are seeking the shelter of NATO membership—and begging NATO’s 30 members to let them in. But Turkey and Israel are ignoring those cries for help—and their own history.

Steps Backward

Although Turkey has played a constructive role vis-à-vis Ukraine—delivering TB2 ground-attack drones to Kiev, blocking Russia from reinforcing its beleaguered Black Sea fleet, expressing its commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory, brokering an agreement to ensure Ukrainian grain shipments, and standing firm to continue those shipments in the face of Putin’s threats—Turkey has been the very opposite when it comes to the accession of Sweden and Finland into NATO.

When Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership in May, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposed their entry, claiming the two longtime liberal democracies were “home to many terrorist organizations.” He then opened the door to supporting Sweden and Finland joining the alliance, but with several demands related to Kurdish militant groups such as the PKK. When Sweden and Finland agreed to “cooperate fully with Turkey in its fight against the PKK,” lift arms embargoes against Turkey, criminalize “fundraising and recruitment activities” in their countries for Kurdish militants, and ban what Erdogan called “terrorist propaganda against Turkey,” the Turkish strongman promised—in writing—to support their entry into NATO. But then he warned that he could “freeze” the deal at his whim.

“Finland and Sweden have delivered on their agreement to Turkey,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared during a recent visit to Turkey. In response, Erdogan’s government said there are still “steps to be taken by Sweden and Finland.”

And so, thanks to Erdogan’s thuggish extortion, Sweden and Finland—two liberal democracies in Moscow’s crosshairs, two European nations that will be net producers and exporters of security, two proven NATO partners—are left groveling for Erdogan’s approval, waiting on Turkey’s blessing, and dangling just outside the safety and security of NATO membership.

Brotherly Apathy

Israel has been equally disappointing in its response to Ukraine’s request for assistance.

Israel, thanks to ties with both Russia and Ukraine, sought early in the crisis to play the role of mediator between Kiev and Moscow. But Israel’s go-betweens largely regurgitated Putin’s demands. The Israelis were “basically telling us to surrender,” said one Ukrainian official. Kiev understandably expected more from Israel—a nation that knows what it’s like to be isolated, to fight for its survival, to be surrounded by behemoth enemies. “Mediation,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine jabbed, “can be between states, not between good and evil.”

Yes, Israel has taken in Ukrainian war refugees; delivered helmets, flak jackets, mine clearing equipment and gas masks; stood up water-purification stations; and sent food and medical aid to Ukraine. However,  “One cannot win the war with blankets,” to borrow the damning words of Zelensky’s predecessor, after President Obama answered Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine by sending MREs and non-lethal aid.

“One can ask,” Zelensky sighs, “why we can’t accept weapons from you or why Israel didn’t impose sanctions against Russia, why you are not putting pressure on Russian business. It is your choice, dear brothers and sisters.” Those words may carry special meaning for Zelensky—Ukraine’s Jewish leader.

With Iranian kamikaze drones now raining down on Ukraine, Iranian troops now in Russian-occupied Ukraine advising Russian personnel, and Iranian ballistic missiles now on the way to the warzone, Ukrainian officials are pointing out the obvious to their Israeli counterparts: “Iran is our mutual enemy,” notes Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk. And Kiev is removing all diplomatic pretense: “Ukraine is highly interested in obtaining from Israel (in shortest possible terms)…Iron Beam, Barak-8, Patriot, Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow Interceptor and Israeli support in training for Ukrainian operators,” Kiev said in a letter released last month.

But Israel is focused on not angering Moscow and not upsetting its devil’s bargain with Putin in Syria. And so, the best Israel has mustered in response to Zelensky’s SOS is an offer to set up a “civilian early-warning system”—not a system that can intercept Russia’s Iranian-built bombs and drones, just a system that will notify Ukrainians that the bombs and drones are falling.

Messages and Memories

The leaders of Turkey and Israel should know better, should do better and should be better. And someone in Washington should tell them that—privately—and perhaps in the process shame them into doing what’s right. 

To Ankara, the message might sound something like this: “Turkey is fortunate that America’s president didn’t force you into diplomatic gymnastics and humiliations to obtain U.S. security assistance and assurances in 1947, when your country was under internal and external threat; that the NATO allies didn’t hold up your accession into the alliance in 1952, when Moscow had your people and territory in its crosshairs; that NATO didn’t give up on you in 1960, 1971, 1980 or 1997, when generals entered into Turkey’s politics, or 2017, when an illiberal strongmen smothered Turkey’s democracy.”

Indeed, with Moscow trying to gain a foothold on Turkish territory and demanding special concessions from Ankara, President Truman didn’t play games or mince words. “Turkey now needs our support,” he told Congress. Nor did he treat Turkey as a second-class partner. “The future of Turkey as an independent and economically sound state is clearly no less important to the freedom-loving peoples of the world than the future of Greece…Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East. We must take immediate and resolute action.”

Soon after NATO was born, the U.S. shepherded Turkey toward membership, and the rest of the alliance welcomed Turkey in, even though it could reasonably be argued that Turkey’s strategically-located territory doesn’t technically fall within what NATO calls the “North Atlantic area.” Regardless, it was a  mutually beneficial arrangement: NATO secured its southern flank, bolstered its containment of the Red Army, stymied Moscow’s access to the Middle East and Mediterranean, and checked Moscow’s expansionist impulses. All the while, NATO membership shielded Turkey from Soviet influence, gave Ankara access to Western technology and investment, increased Turkey’s prosperity, rescued Turkey from the prisonyard of communism, and deterred Moscow.

That’s what Sweden and Finland want—and need—today.

To Israel’s new government, the message might sound something like this: “Israel is fortunate that when you asked for help, as your people and army were all but encircled in 1973, America’s government didn’t equivocate for months, didn’t encourage you to surrender, didn’t withhold the weapons you needed to defend your people and your land, didn’t lecture you about larger geopolitical issues, didn’t suggest that helping you would make Moscow unhappy and thus undermine America’s geostrategic interests.”

Indeed, as armies from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Transjordan and Lebanon bore down on tiny Israel, the very existence of the lone democracy in the region and the only Jewish state in the world was in doubt. As historian Paul Johnson recounts, “A large part of the Israeli air force was destroyed by Soviet ground-to-air missiles.” This effectively erased Israel’s air superiority, which had been key to the 1967 victory. Thus, with a five-to-one edge in armor, Arab forces sent Israeli units reeling. Faced with the prospect of being overrun, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s government made an urgent appeal to Washington. The IDF needed missilery, warplanes and ammunition of all kinds. President Nixon’s response was unambiguous: “Send everything that can fly.”

Dubbed “Operation Nickel Grass,” the monthlong U.S. airlift delivered 22,395 tons of weaponry to Israel. The shipments included fighter-bombers, tanks and ammunition. “The arrival of tanks and artillery shells enabled us to complete our missions,” recalled Maj. Gen. Itzhak Hoffi, who commanded Israel’s northern front. “For generations to come,” Meir declared after the war, “all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the material that meant life to our people.”

America did much more than send weapons. America literally stood with Israel in its darkest hour: In a sign of U.S. resolve, Nixon dispatched two carrier battle groups to the eastern Mediterranean. When the Soviets threatened to intervene directly by dropping paratroopers into the Sinai, Washington raised the Pentagon’s worldwide military-readiness level to DEFCON 3—an unmistakable message to Moscow that Israel’s security was of vital importance to the United States. And it pays to recall the bruising economic blow America sustained for standing with Israel’s democracy: The oil-rich Arab states punished the U.S. by launching an oil embargo. Nixon had feared this and predicted this, but America answered Israel’s SOS anyway.

As Ukraine’s democracy begs for help, Israel has a chance to “pay it forward.”


Turkey and Israel are going to do what’s in their self-interest. That’s how nation-states survive in a broken world full of broken men. The challenge of U.S. foreign policy is to remind these allies—persuade them, cajole them, shame them, show them—that it’s always in their self-interest to work with the United States.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this appeared in Providence.

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