ANKARA, Turkey — Five days before Israel’s election, Defense Minister Benny Gantz traveled to Turkey on an official visit as a guest of Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. Shortly after landing in Ankara, it was announced that Gantz will also meet with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
This is the first visit of an Israeli defense minister to Turkey in a decade, after relations between Israel and Turkey grew very cold in light of differences on the Palestinian issue and following the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident (with nine Turkish nationals killed by Israel Defense Forces fire). Still, despite the hostility, along the years contact between the Israeli and Turkish defense establishments was never severed. The two nations cooperated discreetly, especially in the realm of intelligence.
The two nations have grown closer recently in light of shared interests. Ankara is interested in using Jerusalem to get closer to Washington and advance defense deals with the United States. Jerusalem is interested in having Ankara take action against terrorism, and not allow terror agents like Hamas’ Saleh al-Arouri to operate from its territory.
In his meetings with Erdogan and with Akar, Gantz discussed a variety of security issues of mutual concerns, including renewal of security ties, the presence of Hamas activists on Turkish soil, Iranian presence in Syria, the Palestinian issue and Israel’s alliance with Greece and Cyprus.
Speaking with reporters after his meeting with Erdogan, Gantz said, “We agreed on renewing official defense relations between the nations. I thanked the president and the defense minister for Turkey’s decisive actions against terrorism that threatened Israeli visitors and Jews from the Jewish community in Turkey.”
He continued, “I believe that such moves could strengthen Israel, and connect more and more countries that have an interest in the prosperity and stability of the region, and even in resolving disputes.”
Commenting on Syria, Gantz said, “The topic of Iranian efforts to establish a presence in Syria came up in our talks as part of the Iranian push toward destabilization, and I hope that the information that was discussed will be useful.”
A senior Israeli security source who spoke on condition of anonymity noted on that issue, “We emphasized the topic of the Iranian presence in Syria, and I believe that it will find its way [to them].”
Another topic, which, while not the focus of the talks, also came up, was the Palestinian issue. “Turkey has influence in the Palestinian arena — and I hope it can use it in a way that will help maintain quiet,” Gantz said.
Nonetheless, despite the group photos and warm words, Israel advances cautiously. A senior security source who spoke on condition of anonymity said just before Gantz departed to Turkey that the renewal of the defense relationship will be done “with slow and deliberate steps.”
He noted, “We are not rushing to intimate hugs too quickly; everything is examined carefully. We’re looking for a sensitive, careful process, and the defense discussion will always follow the economic and civic discussion. The entry into the defense realm is very sensitive.”
At the end of the visit, it can be said that as of now Israel and Turkey have not decided on concrete cooperation, but mostly reestablished their security relationship after a “lost” decade of disconnection and hostility. However, on the Palestinian issue, several practical steps were discussed, including the completion of the West Bank Muqbila industrial zone and the reinstatement of the Turkish hospital in the Gaza Strip.