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Israel still cool to gestures from Turkey

In a positive, yet cautious signal, Israel has nominated senior diplomat ambassador Irit Lillian as charge d’Affairs to its embassy in Ankara.
Riot police stand in formation as unseen Turkish protesters demonstrate against Israel's attack on Gaza outside the Israeli embassy in Ankara on November 21, 2012. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday accused Israel of "ethnic cleansing" in Gaza, saying the Jewish state's air raids could not be considered self-defence.  AFP Photo/ADEM ALTAN        (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi assigned Ambassador Irit Lillian to the position of charge d’affaires at the Israeli Embassy in Ankara on Feb. 4. The spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor that since the position is a temporary one, Ashkenazi could decide this on his own, without dealing with a nomination committee and without receiving government approval, as is the procedure for regular ambassadorial positions.

Lillian will be replacing Roey Gilad, who left Ankara Dec. 31. She had served before as ambassador to Bulgaria and is considered one of the ministry’s top diplomats; she is highly professional and an expert on Turkey. As such, her appointment to Ankara — even if temporary — is a positive signal for Turkey in that Israel is interested in rehabilitating bilateral ties.

Still, it is a very cautious positive signal. At the beginning of December, Ankara appointed a new ambassador to Israel, after two years of absence. Turkey’s new ambassador, Ufuk Ulutas, has studied Hebrew in Jerusalem. He is not a career diplomat, but an expert on the region and apparently appreciated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But even after this decision by Erdogan, Israel did not appoint a new ambassador to Ankara. Rather, the embassy is to continue to operate as it did for the past two years — without a permanent head of mission.

Interestingly, already before the appointment of Ulutas, Ankara made several moves carrying a message of rapprochement. On Dec. 7, the Moshe Dayan Institute in Tel Aviv published an exceptional article, titled "Israel is Turkey’s neighbor across the sea: delimitation of the maritime jurisdiction areas between Turkey and Israel." Co-written by retired Adm. professor Cihat Yayci, a close associate of Erdogan, the article suggested that the two countries discuss delimiting marine frontiers anew.

The article was followed by positive statements of senior Turkish officials on Israel, culminating with a Dec. 25 statement by Erdogan himself. The Turkish president told reporters that Turkey would like to have better ties with Israel. He also said that bilateral intelligence contacts are likely to continue.

In the late 1990s, Israel and Turkey had established a strategic, security alliance. But ever since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, and more so since the 2014 Gaza war, bilateral ties deteriorated. Erdogan chided Israel and criticized sharply its government, with statements bordering on anti-Semitism. Thus, his latest diplomatic turnabout was accepted in Jerusalem with a great dose of skepticism.

Prominent Turkey researcher Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak works at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. He told Al-Monitor that thanks to the normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, Israel now enjoys unprecedented diplomatic maneuvering capabilities. "Maintaining correct and functioning relations with Turkey is an important asset for Israel’s national security. That is certain. But the Abraham Accords changed the geopolitical set-up in the region, and Israel is no longer the Middle East isolated state it used to be. Turkey must come to terms with this new situation," he said.  

In past years, Israel was the one seeking to rehabilitate ties with Turkey, but this situation has changed. It is now Turkey doing the begging. Still, such a process is not going to be easy. Shortly after he was appointed, Ashkenazi criticized Turkey for hosting Hamas headquarters in Istanbul. Later, he criticized Turkey for offering some of these Hamas members travel documents. Senior diplomats told Al-Monitor that expelling Hamas operatives from Turkey is practically a nonnegotiable condition by Israel for rehabilitating ties.

That being said, on Dec. 30, Ashkenazi convened an interministerial meeting that included his own staff, people from the Defense Ministry and representatives from the Mossad and the National Security Council. The purpose of the meeting was to evaluate the seriousness of Turkish efforts for rapprochement. The meeting reportedly ended with recommendations to advance prudently vis-a-vis Ankara. It is clear for Jerusalem that Ankara did not suddenly fall in love with the Jewish state, but was desperately trying to improve positions ahead of US President Joe Biden taking office.

Cohen Yanarocak noted that Turkey fears for its future relations with the Biden administration. Already during his election campaign, Joe Biden called to support Erdogan’s opponents. Recent US criticism over the conduct of the Turkish authorities against demonstrators at Bogazici University is further worrying Ankara. Turkey hopes that ameliorating ties with Israel could help it come closer to the United States.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency tweeted recently a list of Jews in the new Biden administration and marked them with an Israeli flag. "The news agency wrote that Jews are overrepresented in the new Biden administration. This means that in Turkey's eyes, the road to ameliorate ties with Washington passes through Jerusalem," Cohen Yanarocak said.

The Israeli prudent reaction to Turkish efforts of rapprochement and its insistence on the expulsion of Hamas operatives was not well received in Ankara. On Jan. 31, a Turkish official was quoted as saying, "They should stop playing games." The unnamed official added, "Above all, they demand an end to things that don't exist. There is no such Hamas secret cell in Turkey that conducts cyberattacks. We have Hamas leaders who have been sent by Israel to Turkey as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange."

Cohen Yanarocak added that Israel was not convinced by the Turkish denial on Hamas cells in Istanbul. He argues that with the Abraham Accords, Israel can now allow itself to condition normalization of diplomatic ties with Turkey halting support of Hamas. For him, this is a legitimate demand. Still, it is a complicated situation. Turkey feels that with all its efforts in recent months, the ball is now not in Ankara, but in Jerusalem’s court.

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