Turkey and Israel working to restore ties to ambassador level

Countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces stormed humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) attend a press conference after their meeting in Ankara, Turkey. EPA / STR
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Turkey and Israel have begun work on restoring mutual diplomatic representation to the ambassador level, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday, as the two countries seek an end to more than a decade of strained ties.

Mr Cavusoglu was speaking alongside his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, who was visiting Ankara after months of warming ties but amid Israeli concerns that citizens could come under attack by Iranian agents in the Nato-member country.

Israel had warned citizens against travelling to Turkey, citing suspected assassination or abduction plots by Iran, which has vowed to avenge the May 22 assassination of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps colonel in Tehran that it blamed on Israeli agents.

The Turkish foreign minister said that he and Mr Lapid were in close contact regarding threats to Israeli citizens and Mr Lapid thanked Turkey for helping to foil an Iranian plot to harm Israelis in Istanbul.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) attend a press conference after their meeting in Ankara, Turkey. EPA / STR

Turkish media reported that authorities had detained five Iranians suspected of planning attacks on Israelis before Mr Lapid’s visit.

Police seized two pistols and two silencers in searches conducted in houses and hotels where the suspected attackers were staying, reports said.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has since confirmed that a joint operation with Turkey had succeeded in thwarting several attacks and resulted in a number of arrests in recent days.

Mr Cavusoglu visited Israel last month to encourage expanded economic co-operation in the first such visit by a senior Turkish official in 15 years.

Turkey, beset by economic troubles, has been trying to end its international isolation by normalising ties with several countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Israel and Turkey were once close allies, but relations grew tense under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a vocal critic of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. In addition, Turkey’s embrace of the militant group Hamas has angered Israel.

The countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces stormed a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power there in 2007. Nine Turkish activists were killed.

Israel apologised to Turkey for the deaths under a US-brokered agreement, but reconciliation efforts stalled.

Turkey recalled its ambassador in 2018 after the US recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, prompting Israel to respond in kind. The two countries have not reappointed ambassadors.

The latest rapprochement has been led by Israel’s mostly ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, who has held several telephone calls with Mr Erdogan and who visited Turkey in March, becoming the first Israeli leader to do so in 14 years.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett arrives at his office to head a weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. AFP

Mr Lapid’s visit comes amid political turmoil in Israel, where Mr Bennett’s fragile, year-old government decided this week to dissolve the Knesset, triggering new elections that are set to take place in the autumn.

Under the agreement that forged Mr Bennett’s coalition government, Mr Lapid is expected in the coming days to become caretaker prime minister until a new government is cobbled together after the elections.

The developments deepen a political crisis in Israel, which has held four elections since 2019, each largely a referendum over former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.

Mr Netanyahu hopes to return to power in the coming vote, but polls show that, as in previous rounds, it will unlikely produce a clear winner.

Updated: June 23, 2022, 3:22 PM