The Turkish authorities released an Israeli couple who were detained for a few days on espionage charges because they took photographs of one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presidential palaces. The move quickly ended an incident that could have spiralled into a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel, especially since it was followed by telephone conversations between Erdogan and senior Israeli officials including Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Israel held intense shuttle contacts to have the couple released, explaining that they have no ties to Israeli security agencies, that they photographed the president’s residence by accident and did not know that it was prohibited to do so. Upon their arrival in Israel, the couple did not speak to the media about their arrest or interrogation while in Turkey.
In the first call between an Israeli prime minister and the Turkish president since 2013, Bennett thanked Erdogan for personally intervening to facilitate the return of the Israeli couple. He also expressed his appreciation of Turkish efforts on all levels to quickly and quietly resolve the incident within a few days, and praised the channels of communication between the two sides working efficiently and confidentially through the crisis.
This was preceded by a telephone conversation between Herzog and Erdogan, in which the Israeli president thanked his Turkish counterpart for the release of the Israeli couple, adding that he would welcome a comprehensive dialogue on bilateral and regional issues relating to peace.
For his part Erdogan affirmed the importance of relations with Israel, since they are key to peace, stability and security in the Middle East. He also stressed the need to reduce disputes between the two sides, according to a statement by Herzog’s office.
Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper quoted the senior diplomat at the Israeli Embassy in Turkey Irit Lillion as saying, “there are signals that the Turks are interested in improving relations.” Lillion is in contact with Erdogan’s Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin, and there were contacts led by Mossad Chief David Barnea with Turkey’s Chief of Intelligence Hakan Fidan.
Herzog and Erdogan discussed diplomatic initiatives during their conversation, and the former said he would welcome a comprehensive dialogue about bilateral and regional issues relating to peace. This is the second phone conversation between the two leaders. The first is believed to have been an attempt by Turkey to mend fences with Israel.
These developments indicate a rapprochement between the two countries after the diplomatic row triggered when Israel killed 11 Turkish nationals aboard a Turkish vessel carrying Turkish and Arab activists as it attempted to reach the Gaza Strip by sea in 2010.
Experts on Israeli affairs believe that although Israel insists the release of the couple was not contingent on anything in return, Tel Aviv will pay a price amid growing accusations against Turkey of hosting Hamas and allowing the group to invest its wealth in Turkey. Turkey’s handling of the issue quietly and without media coverage, unlike what happened with the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, indicates that Ankara wants to avoid tensions with Israel, especially since the arrest of the Israeli couple took place only a few weeks after Turkey arrested 15 foreigners and accused them of spying for Israel.
Haaretz newspaper said Israel was concerned that Turkey would use this incident to political ends, and political circles in Israel refrained from stirring the pot in order to resolve the issue behind closed doors. Turkey also understands that the diplomatic and political crisis with Israel will manifest in relations with the US – which are already tense.
Observers believe Turkey is using Israeli mediation, by improving ties with Tel Aviv, as a gateway to easing tensions between Washington and Ankara, something it needs in the light of pressure on Turkey’s economy and the collapse of the Turkish lira to an unprecedented degree.
Warmer ties between Turkey and Israel could lead to Tel Aviv shelving the draft legislation – now at the Knesset – that would recognise the Armenian genocide. Erdogan also wants to ensure that Israel will not sabotage Turkey’s interests in Libya, and is keen to cooperate with Israel on this matter, according to the newspaper Israel Hayom quoting political sources in Israel.
According to official Israeli statistics in October, Turkey ranked second among the destinations of outbound flights. Turkey knows that this would not have continued in the near future, even without official state directives, if the crisis between the two countries had not been resolved. Tourism is one of the top sources of revenue for Turkey.
And yet better relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara depend on several steps that the Turkish leadership may find difficult, most notably Turkey hosting Hamas leaders and Israeli accusations that Hamas is using Turkish territories to send funds to its bases in the West Bank and Gaza. This topic is enough to undermine any efforts to improve relations between the two countries.
Meanwhile, the grassroots base of the Justice and Development Party led by Erdogan may block his attempts to move closer to Israel, out of concern that the Turkish opposition would use this issue to hurl more accusations at Erdogan and undermine popular support for him, since he has always taken positions opposed to Israel.
Experts assert that an Israeli-Turkish rapprochement without US help would be impossible, or would at best be very slow, and that is relevant since there are tensions between Ankara and Washington as a result of Turkey’s purchase of Russian missile systems and the US delaying Turkey’s purchase of US-made F35 combat aircraft.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.