Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, March 9, 2022. Source: Isaac Herzog/Twitter.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, March 9, 2022. Source: Isaac Herzog/Twitter.
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‘Turkish Mossad bust unlikely to cause long-term fallout’

“If the past is anything to go by, once Erdoğan is re-elected this whole story will go away very quickly,” expert tells JNS.

Turkey’s recent claim to have uncovered a Mossad cell operating in the country will not greatly affect the two countries’ relations, experts believe.

“I don’t think there will be any long-lasting implications for Israel,” said Dror Zeevi, a member of the Forum for Regional Thinking (FORTH) and a professor emeritus of middle eastern studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told JNS.

On Sunday, The Daily Sabah, a Turkish news outlet known to support the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reported that Turkish authorities had apprehended 11 individuals on suspicion of conducting espionage activities for Israel, specifically against Iranian targets.

According to the report, these individuals were part of a 23-member operative ring that included two Turkish nationals. Of these, 15 suspects had been identified, 11 of whom had been arrested and two of whom were actively being sought by authorities. Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization and the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office alleged that the group utilized a company with operations in Iran to gather intelligence for the Mossad. 

The Sebah report claimed that the 18-month investigation focused on the alleged ringleader, Selcuk Kucukkaya, who was recruited by the Mossad via a member of the Gulen movement, an opposition group labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey. After meeting Mossad agents in Europe and completing five preliminary training tasks, Kucukkaya was purportedly recruited to form a group, monitor specific individuals, and transfer information about “certain individuals and their family members, including phone calls, signal information, bank accounts, and assets,” back to Israel. 

The report depicted the arrests as part of a wider counterintelligence initiative aimed at not just Israel but also at disrupting Russian and Iranian operatives within Turkey. As of this writing, Israel has not publicly responded to the allegations. The specific consequences awaiting the 11 arrested suspects were not detailed in the Sabah report.

The arrest of the alleged cell coincides with the upcoming Turkish runoff election, which is expected to be held on Sunday, May 28 between Erdogan and opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

Many experts have linked the sudden revelation of the Mossad bust to political maneuvering from Erdoğan; an effort to rally nationalist sympathy for the incumbent before the election.

“As far as I understand this network was discovered a while ago. There may have been security concerns, but as an added benefit Erdoğan may have decided to let this story run right on time, to make it look like he is fighting Israel. From a historical perspective, Israel is one of the favorite enemies in the Muslim world, and attacking them is a popular theme that could help in an election,” Zeevi told JNS.

“If the past is anything to go by, once Erdoğan is re-elected this whole story will go away very quickly,” he added. According to most polls, Erdogan is the favorite to win the May 28 vote.

However, Gallia Lindenstrauss, a research fellow at the Institute for National Strategy and Security (INSS), noted the contradiction in this assessment.

While she agreed that the timing of the story does seem to support the argument that its release was intended to shore up Erdoğan’s electoral changes, the longtime Turkish leader is already the strong favorite.

“Erdoğan already has a comfortable lead and probably doesn’t need this. so this explanation is also not perfect,” she added.

The alleged discovery of the cell comes in the background of a recent renormalization between Israel and Turkey. Jerusalem and Ankara announced the restoration of full relations last August, with then-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid saying that the move would “contribute to deepening ties between the two peoples, expanding economic, trade and cultural ties, and strengthening regional stability.”

The alleged Mossad bust is the latest in a series of Israel-related security incidents in Turkey in the past few years.

Late last year, Turkish law-enforcement and intelligence authorities claimed to have detained 44 people on suspicion of “spying on Palestinians” on behalf of the Mossad, and to have placed seven under full arrest.

In a separate incident in 2022, Turkey claimed to have broken up a Mossad ring and put 15 people on trial for espionage.

Furthermore, according to senior Israeli security officials, on at least four separate occasions over the past year, the Mossad thwarted Iranian operations to target Israelis in Turkey, including a former Israeli ambassador.

“Every few months there is a story about Israeli intelligence operations in Turkey; the bust of this cell is nothing new,” said Lindenstrauss.

Zeevi agreed, calling Turkey “a fertile ground for Israeli intelligence gathering.”

He further expanded on the complex position of Turkey in Israel’s fight to counter Iranian threats and Palestinian terror.

“The relationship is very complicated. On one hand, Israel is a modern, technologically developed country, that is seen positively [by Turkey]. Furthermore, Turkey is suspicious of Iran and sees them as a  potential threat, and has even cooperated with Mossad operations to prevent Iran from targeting tourists in Turkey,” he said.

“On the other hand, Turkey views negatively Israel’s control of Jerusalem and bad relations with Palestinians,” he added.

This complexity, he said, is why stories such as the recent alleged espionage bust don’t seem to have the ramifications one might expect.

“You see a lot of stories of operations, and some activity by Turkey to counter Israel, but you don’t see a lot of geopolitical repercussions because there is this complicated reality in the background,” he said.

Furthermore, said Lindenstrauss, Erdoğan is a pragmatist. However, she continued, while the Turkish leader is a pragmatist and supports normalization with Israel, “the Turkish government obviously wants to control things that are happening on their soil and will not allow foreign operations.”

In summary, she said, while the leak of the story “is not great” for normalization, it is also unlikely to have major ramifications.

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