Turkey and Israel have maintained some form of diplomatic relations since the Ottoman state recognized the Jewish State in 1949. Turkey’s first diplomatic mission in Israel was officially inaugurated on January 7, 1950, and the first Turkish Chief of Mission, Seyfullah Esin, presented his credentials to Chaim Weizmann, President of Israel. However, the Turkish Legation was downgraded to the level of “Charge d’Affaires” after the Suez-Suez Crisis in 1956.
In 1958, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes met secretly to discuss a “peripheral pact" which included public-relations campaigns, exchange of intelligence information and military support. Possibly as a result of these meeting, the Turkish mission in Tel-Aviv was upgraded back to the level of "Legation" in July 1963.
In 1967, Turkey joined the Arab condemnation of Israel after the Six-Day War and called for Israel’s withdrawal from the Palestinian territories, but it abstained from voting in favor of a clause referring to Israel as an “aggressor state.” At a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Rabat, Morocco, Turkey opposed a resolution calling for severing diplomatic relations with Israel.
The Turkish Legation in Israel was further upgraded to the level of “Embassy” in January 1980. In March 1992, the mutual diplomatic relations were raised once again to the Ambassadorial level and a Turkish Ambassador presented his credentials to Israeli President Chaim Herzog in Tel-Aviv.
In 2005, Turkish Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Israel offering to serve as a Middle East peace mediator and looking to build trade and military ties with the Jewish State. Erdoğan met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Moshe Katsav and also laid a wreath at Yad Vashem. Erdoğan told Sharon that his Justice and Development Party regarded anti-Semitism as “a crime against humanity.”
In early 2006, the Israeli Foreign Ministry described its country's relations with Turkey as "perfect." In November 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres met with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, and addressed the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.
Relations between the two nations began to strain following Turkey's condemnation of Israel's Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009. In October 2009, Turkey barred Israel from participating in the joint Anatolian Eagle military exercise, to which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by saying Turkey could no longer work as a peace mediator, stating "Turkey can't be [an] honest broker", between Syria and Israel.
In early 2009, Erdoğan harshly criticized Israel's conduct in Gaza at the World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland. In front of Israeli President Peres, Erdoğan said: "I find it very sad that people applaud what you said. You killed people. And I think that it is very wrong."
Relations between the countries further soured following the Gaza Flotilla Incident of May 2010, when eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American were killed by Israeli troops while aboard a convoy attempting to break Israel's blockade of Gaza. Erdoğan described the raid as "state terrorism" and Turkey immediately recalled its ambassador from Israel and summoned the Israeli ambassador to demand an explanation. The Turkish Foreign Ministry stated that the incident could lead to irreparable consequences in bilateral relations.
On September 2, 2011, Turkey downgraded diplomatic ties with Israel and suspended military cooperation after the UN released its report on the flotilla incident. Turkey demanded an Israeli apology and compensation for the dead; Israel refused. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Turkey's opposition leader, condemned the downgrade in relations with Israel while Faruk Logoglu, a deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People's Party, also criticized Erdoğan for the diplomatic severing of ties.
Although Turkish and Israeli intelligence agencies have been working together since 1958, strategic intelligence cooperation came to prominence between Turkey and Israel in the early 1990's, with signed agreements between the Mossad and Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT). While carrying out missions in neighboring countries, the Mossad would use Turkey as a buffer zone to ensure their safety and security while returning from or travelling to their objectives. Pursuant to these agreements, Mossad members were able to enter and leave Turkey with their spy equipment without going through border crossings and security procedures, and avoided passport and customs checks as well. This security and intelligence relationship has been under high stress since October 2012, when it was revealed that Turkey had leaked to Iran the names of 10 Iranian spies working for Israel. These Iranian spies would use Turkish territory as a meeting place with their Mossad "handlers". If these allegations are true, that means that Turkey blew the cover of the Iranian spies and betrayed the strategic trust of Israel, violating the unwritten rules of international intelligence conduct and relations. Following these events as well as the Gaza Flotilla incident in May 2010, Turkey's intelligence chief Hakan Fidan is attempting to cancel agreements with the Israeli Mossad that allow the Mossad members to operate freely on Turkish soil. The Israeli intelligence agencies are upset at this prospect because Turkey has been a strategic ally for Israeli operations in the region for a long time.
In March 2013, during a speech at a United Nations event, Erdoğan described Zionism as "a crime against humanity" saying, "It is necessary that we must consider—just like Zionism, or anti-Semitism, or fascism—Islamophobia."
Improving of Relations
Following US pressure on both sides, reconciliation between Israel and Turkey took off in early 2013. In March 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized for the Gaza Flotilla incident and an official statement by the Israeli government said that Netanyahu expressed regret over the deterioration in bilateral relations and described the flotilla incident as unintentional, regretful and involving "operational errors". Mr. Erdogan later issued a statement where he accepted the apology on behalf of the Turkish people.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented on the recent improvement of relations between Turkey and Israel in December 2015, stating that, “this normalization process has a lot to offer to us, to Israel, to Palestine and also to the region... The region needs this.” Turkey-Israel relations had been strained since the 2010 Gaza Flotilla Incident, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed.
Turkish citizens celebrated Hanukkah in a public display for the first time, on December 14, 2015. Turkish Jews lit a large menorah in Istanbul’s historical Ortakoy Square, and traditional Hanukkah blessings were recited via loudspeaker. The head of Turkey's Jewish community, Ishak Ibrahimzadeh, spoke at the event, which was attended by many government officials. In a statement released on December 7, Turkey's President Erdogan commented, “I wish peace, happiness and welfare to all Jews, primarily Turkey’s Jewish citizens who are an inseparable part of our society, on the occasion of Hanukkah.”
In December 2015 Turkey and Israel reached “understandings” aimed at normalizing ties between the two countries, following days of secret meetings in Switzerland. If signed, under the terms of the agreement Israel will compensate the families of the victims of the Gaza Flotilla Incident to the tune of $20 million, and begin discussions with Turkey cocerning oil exports. In the days following the announcement of a potential agreement, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the Knesset that “There are ongoing talks with Turkey, but there are no understandings, and we're not there yet.” Outstanding issues included Hamas activities within Turkey, and the blockade of Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon complicated reconciliation negotiations with Turkey in mid-February 2016, when he demanded that any reconciliation agreement include the return of two Israeli soldiers bodies currently being held in Gaza by Hamas. Ya'alon was reportedly the only Minister who expressed doubts about Israeli-Turkish reconciliation. Israeli officials also demanded that Turkey take steps to shut down the Hamas headquarters in Istanbul before any final agreement is signed. To read the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Center's analysis on Turkey/Israel reconciliation, released in March 2016, please click here. A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement released on April 8, 2016, said Turkey and Israel had made much progress on normalizing relations, and an official agreement will be signed at the next meeting between the two countries.
Israeli and Texan owners of the Leviathan natural gas field entered into a contract with Turkish Edeltech group and Zorlu Energi to sell them $1.3 billion in oil over the next 18 years. Edeltech and Zorlu announced plans to build two new processing plants in Israel to handle the sale.
A terrorist attack in Istanbul killed three Israeli citizens with a tour group on March 19, 2016, prompting the Counter-Terrorism bureau of Prime Minister Netanyahu's office to recommend that Israelis avoid visiting the country until further notice. Surveilance cameras revealed that the terrorist “stalked” the Israeli tour group during the hours leading up to the attack. Israeli President Rueven Rivlin spoke via phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the attack, thanking Erdogan for the condolence letter written on behalf of the three Israelis killed. During the conversation the two leaders stressed their need to cooperate in the fight against terrorism. The Prime Minister's office issued a second warning on March 28, 2016, urging Israelis currently in Turkey to leave as soon as they can and again stressing it is highly recommended for Israelis to hold off on travel to Turkey, due to the security situation.
A group of militants identifying with the Islamic State were arrested in Gaziantep, Turkey, during late March 2016. The six individuals divulged to police that an “imminent” attack was being planned against Istanbul's Synagogue in Beyoglu, which has a school and community center attached. Turkish police confirmed that this was more than a credible threat, it was an active plot. To address the threat Turkish police increased security at the Synagogue as well as other Jewish establishments.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization told officials in Jerusalem on May 3, 2016, that they may officially open offices in the organization's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. This was made possible after NATO member Turkey rescinded their veto they had imposed on Israeli activity within the organization in 2005, following the Gaza Flotilla incident. Turkey's veto prevented Israel from moving forward and gaining representation at NATO, and also from participating in NATO joint exercises. The decision to remove the veto and allow Israel to open an office at NATO headquarters was accepted as a consequence of warming relations between Israel and Turkey.
On June 26, 2016, Turkey and Israel announced that they had officially reached a reconciliation agreement, ending six years of animosity between them. Per the agreement, Israel will pay $20 million in compensation to the families of the victims of the 2010 Gaza Flotilla incident, and Turkey will once again be able to send aid and supplies to the Gaza Strip. A new power station, as well as a water desalination plant and hospital will also be built by Turkey in Gaza according to the agreement. On July 1, 2016, the Panamanian cargo ship Lady Leyla left the Port of Mersin in Turkey, loaded with 11,000 tons of humanitarian aid and supplies bound for the Gaza Strip. Food staples such as rice, flower, sugar, and wheat were loaded on the ship, as well as blankets, medical supplies, and toys for children. The Turkish Parliament approved this reconciliation agreement on August 20, 2016, and President Erdogan signed a bill on August 30 giving the go-ahead for implementation.
A group of Turkish businessmen, headed by the energy billionaire Ahmet Zorlu representing the Zorlu group, travelled to Israel to drum up business following news of the reconciliation deal. The Zorlu group is already involved in the Israel energy sector, holding a 25% stake in the Dorad gas-fired generation plant as a partner of Israeli company Edeltech. In a meeting with Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Zorlu made it clear that Turkey was interested in purchasing oil from Israel, as well as increasing energy cooperation in other ways.
On September 21, 2016, a Turkish man brandishing a 12-inch knife approached security guards at the Israeli embassy in Ankarra, Turkey, shouting that he had a bomb and acting erratically. The man was shot in the leg by embassy security personnel and taken into custody.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appointed Mekin Mustafa Kemal Okem to be Turkey's new Ambassador to Israel in November 2016. Okem had previously worked at Turkish embassies in London and Riyadh, and upon his appointment was serving as the Turkish Prime Minister's advisor on foreign affairs. On the day of this announcement, the Israeli Foreign Ministry nominated Eithan Na’eh to be the new Israeli Ambassador to Turkey. Okem arrived in Israel on December 12, 2016, and was sworn in officially as Turkey's new Ambassador to Israel.
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