Turkey, Israel at odds over deepening ‘satellite controversy’

March 11, 2011, Friday/ 16:42:00

Israel is now waging a diplomatic war with several countries, including the US, to prevent Turkey from snapping pictures of its territory through a new Turkish satellite; however, the Jewish state’s diplomatic overtures have yet to yield any results, given the tense Turkish-Israeli ties.

The GökTürk satellite has Israelis eyeing the end of a US-backed blackout on high-resolution commercial photography of their turf from space.

The new satellite due to be in orbit by 2013 will sell images of objects more detailed than 2 meters across -- currently the finest grain available when it comes to pictures of Israel, thanks mainly to US legislation from the 1990s.

Turkey’s leap into the aerospace market treads on Israeli security sensitivities given the former allies’ recently strained ties. Unlike with other nations that have fielded commercial satellites, Israel has little leverage over Ankara.

Israel has already put pressure on France, who is working on the construction of the satellite in cooperation with the Italian-based Telespazio, to stop the project. “We try to ensure that we are not photographed at high resolutions, and most (countries) accommodate us,” a senior Israeli defense official told Reuters. “Should we request this of the Turks? We won’t ask for it. There is no one to talk to.”

The official cited GökTürk and popular space-image clearing houses like Google Earth, among developments that have prompted discussions in Israel as to the viability of the so-called “shutter control” over commercial satellite cameras: “The basic agreement was for 2 meter (resolution). This has still not changed. In the future, it will certainly change.”

The current “shutter control” is anchored in an amendment to the 1997 US National Defense Authorization Act, which banned disseminating satellite images of Israel of a grain higher than that available from non-American commercial sources.

Israel used bilateral lobbying to deal with the few such challenges to Washington’s aerospace dominance that have emerged so far. An Israeli firm provided the telescope for Kompsat, a South Korean commercial satellite launched in 2006. Its camera offers photos with a maximum resolution of 1 meter.

“They don’t photograph our area at a resolution better than 2 meters,” the Israeli official said, adding, “There is always conditioning.”

French Connection

Similar appeals have been made to France, whose Pleiades satellite will soon sell images with a 0.7 meter grain. France, along with Italy, has a subsidiary role in GökTürk, which experts say may provide pictures of even higher resolution.

But Turkey, whose government froze relations with Israel after its deadly raid on a Gaza aid ship last year, has shown no interest in veiling the Jewish state from GökTürk.

A senior official from Turkish Defense Ministry earlier told Today’s Zaman under the condition of anonymity that Turkey decides how to use the images taken by Turkish satellite.

Officials from the Turkish Defense Ministry told Today’s Zaman that for years, Israel has obtained images of Turkey’s territory and for the first time, Turkey will have a satellite for intelligence. “Reciprocity is essential in international relations. If they observe Turkish soil, Turkey has the same right, too.”

Turkey’s defense and procurement authorities had completed a deal with Italian Telespazio for the construction and launch of the country’s first military satellite, GökTürk, in 2009.

The 250 million euro contract was signed on July 16, 2009 at a ceremony attended by top Turkish officials, including Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül and Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry (SSM) head Murad Bayar and company representatives.

The agreement covers the supply of an earth-observation satellite equipped with a high-resolution optical sensor, an integration and test center for satellites to be built in Turkey and the entire ground segment of the system, which will carry out in-orbit operation, data acquisition and processing. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has been eliminated from the approximately $250 million project.

The dispute between Turkey and Israel is not new. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak tried to sell to Turkey an Ofek spy satellite in 2008, but the talks collapsed with Barak aides blaming Ankara’s refusal to accept a “shutter control” clause in the contract. The Israeli official said such measures helped prevent “sensitive material from falling into the hands of terrorists.” Israel also frets about its nuclear facilities and other secretive projects becoming too open to public scrutiny.

Asked about the prospect of Israel’s “shutter control” expiring, the official cited countermeasures developed by other countries, such as jamming space communications and even shooting down hostile satellites.

Worried about missile attacks from an array of regional foes, Israel has been digging in -- for example, with a huge government bunker in the Jerusalem hills and a submarine hangar at Haifa port. These offer some cover from satellites.

“We know how to defend ourselves like others defend themselves, and better than others,” the Israeli official said.

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