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Israel-Turkey ties ease into new era with talks on ‘soft’ collaboration

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (right) with Kemal Okem, Turkey’s first ambassador to Israel since the restoration of those countries’ diplomatic relations, in Jerusalem Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (right) with Kemal Okem, Turkey’s first ambassador to Israel since the restoration of those countries’ diplomatic relations, in Jerusalem Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90.

Officials from the Turkish and Israeli foreign ministries met for the first time in more than six years earlier this month, striving to draft a roadmap to promote cooperation in so-called “soft” areas such as energy, trade and tourism. As Turkey and Israel ease into a new era in their relationship, collaboration on more sensitive issues like security has been slower to emerge.

Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem and Turkish Foreign Undersecretary Umit Yalcin met in Ankara Feb. 1 for the latest round of political consultations between their countries, which agreed to normalize ties last summer.

Following the discussions, a closing statement said the two sides agreed to exchange visits by government ministers as well as business, academic and cultural delegations, starting with visits to Israel by Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Nabi Avci and Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci. Avci arrived in Israel this week for the Feb. 7-8 International Mediterranean Tourism Market exhibition in Tel Aviv. His trip is the first Turkish ministerial visit to the Jewish state since the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, which triggered the deterioration of Turkey-Israel ties.

During the political consultations, both sides reaffirmed the importance of improved Turkish-Israeli relations for the stability and security of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. A senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official, who asked not to be named, told that the discussions were instrumental to increasing bilateral cooperation in the fields of energy and trade. He said that “high-level meetings await us as a result of the nature of the renewed relations between the two countries.”

“The setting is suitable to further expand cooperation in different areas,” the official said. “Cooperation in tourism, energy, economy, etc. will come to the forefront, while security and intelligence issues may take some time. But I can say that both sides have the determination and will try their best so that all the dimensions of the relationship can be fully restored. Normalization was long-planned and a desirable result.”

Yet on the same day as the recent bilateral consultations, Turkey condemned the Israeli government’s approval of the construction of new settlements.

“Israel’s continuation of such acts that threaten to destroy the basis for a lasting peace, despite the constant warnings of the international community, causes dismay,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

‘Step by step’ normalization

In addition to the talks in Ankara between Turkish and Israeli diplomats, a visiting delegation led by the Foreign Ministry’s Rotem met with Governor of Istanbul Vasip Sahin. Israeli Consul General in Istanbul Shai Cohen described that meeting as “very good, open and friendly.”

“We talked about cooperation projects, about the need to work with determination on all mutual issues…We also talked about Istanbul being a major city with a lot of potential to further expand the relations,” Cohen said. “The governor emphasized economic and commercial ties related to technology and innovation—something that we will work very hard to promote through cooperation with important economic and commercial organizations.”

The normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations is “starting step by step, mainly on ‘soft powers’ like trade, culture, academic ties and tourism, issues that are ready to be enhanced in the short-term,” explained Cohen.

“Regarding these soft power areas, there are a number of bilateral agreements that need to be updated, something that is going to happen later on and was discussed during the Israeli delegation’s Turkey visit in general terms,” he said.

The Israeli delegation also met with Chief Rabbi of Turkey Rav Ishak Haleva and prominent members of the Turkish Jewish community. The group visited Neve Shalom Synagogue and the Jewish Museum of Turkey, both in Istanbul.

“Director General Yuval Rotem was impressed with the [Turkish community’s] knowledge of the Jewish existence in Anatolia since the 4th century BCE, and that this culture influenced and interacted with various civilizations in Asia Minor throughout this time,” said Jewish Museum of Turkey Director Nisya İsman Allovi. “The delegation was also interested with the information of Turkish diplomats serving in several countries under Nazi occupation who endeavored greatly and succeeded in saving the lives of Jews from Nazi atrocities, including Selahattin Ülkümen, Turkey’s Consul General at Rhodes from 1943-1944, who was honored in 1990 by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nation.”

Rotem wrote on Twitter that he was “moved to learn so much about Istanbul’s rich Jewish history at the city’s Jewish Museum and to meet with Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva.”

Turkish minister’s Israel trip

During his landmark visit to Israel this week, Turkey’s Avci spoke at a joint press conference with his Israeli counterpart Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.

“There were 260,000 Israelis who visited Turkey last year and I think it is possible to raise the number to 600,000, as it was before [bilateral ties deteriorated],” Avci said. Levin, meanwhile, said Israel sees Turkey as a successful model in the tourism industry.

Avci’s itinerary in Israel also included attending the inauguration of Jaffa’s Turkish Culture House, an event that was postponed indefinitely when Turkish-Israeli ties broke down in 2010; visiting the Turkish Jewish Center in Bat Yam; attending the opening of a photo exhibition on the Turkey-Israel relationship; and visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey analyst at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, called Avci’s visit a “significant move towards future cooperation” between Israel and Turkey.

“These efforts will only be fruitful if they will be supported by concrete positive statements that will act as an icebreaker between the two nations,” Yanarocak said. “Therefore, more senior-level bilateral visits should take place.”

Karel Valansi is a political correspondent for the Istanbul-based Şalom Jewish weekly newspaper.

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