Israeli President Isaac Herzog spoke with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Feb. 6, and wished him health and a full recovery from COVID-19. The two discussed the possibility of meeting soon. While further details were not disclosed, Erdoğan told Turkish media that Herzog would visit Ankara in March. Erdoğan also said the two countries would soon discuss transporting Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey.
After the Israeli tourist couple Mordi and Natalie Oknin—arrested on a false charge of being Mossad agents—were freed from a Turkish prison, it was clear that Erdoğan would exact a price from Israel for their release, at a time convenient to him.
Erdoğan has declared a new foreign policy and has begun to repair his regional relations with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and now Israel.
Over the past decade, Israel’s relations with Turkey have been volatile and marked by diplomatic crises. In 2010, Israel thwarted a Turkish attempt to breach the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, sending navy commandos to commandeer the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara at sea. In 2016, an agreement was reached to normalize the two states’ relations. However, in 2018, after the death of Palestinians rioting at the Gaza border, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador from Ankara and recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv.
Erdoğan has now decided that the time is right to improve relations and make it pay up for the Oknins’ release. The Turkish foreign minister called his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid to inquire about his health after Lapid’s own infection with COVID-19. Erdoğan himself announced that Herzog would visit Turkey and even called him to offer his condolences following the passing of his mother.
Erdoğan’s decision is strategic. For him, the time is now more opportune because Benjamin Netanyahu is no longer in office, there is a new U.S. administration and Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is not on the agenda.
This month, Erdoğan is planning on extensive diplomatic activity. He is slated to visit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Ukraine. In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin was meant to visit Ankara, which is now unlikely.
Erdoğan is making a great effort to end the regional disputes he created and normalize relations with Egypt, the UAE and Israel.
In an interview with Turkish television, he said that “Israel has taken some steps involving cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey, for its part, is also prepared to take the necessary steps.” He views Herzog’s visit to Turkey as opening “a new page in Turkish-Israeli relations.”1
Erdoğan would like to speed up the normalization of ties with Israel and discuss delivering Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey.
Erdoğan and the Muslim Brotherhood
Erdoğan is a senior representative of the global Muslim Brotherhood movement. He knows that the Brotherhood and Hamas will not like a thaw between Turkey and Israel, to put it mildly, but his political survival and the pursuit of Turkey’s interests are his top priorities.
He has already clandestinely expelled Muslim Brotherhood leaders from Turkey who fled there from Egypt after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rise to power, and to mend fences with Egypt he has stopped the incitement against the Egyptian president on Turkish TV channels. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are keeping quiet, not voicing a word of criticism about Turkey and its attempts to restore ties with Egypt and now, also with Israel.
Erdoğan wants to survive as a leader. Turkey’s economy has deteriorated, the Turkish lira has lost more than 40 percent of its value in less than a year, inflation has risen by more than 30% and Erdoğan’s political clout has declined.
From Israel’s standpoint, this is the right time to again pressure Erdoğan to close the Hamas military office in Istanbul.
The Hamas branch in Istanbul
Hamas has a large office in Istanbul, partially operated by prisoners freed in the 2011 Shalit deal who were expelled by Israel. Some of their activity involves orchestrating terror attacks in the West Bank and attempting to recruit Israeli Arab students studying or visiting Turkey to the ranks of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.
For example, on June 12, 2014, three Israeli teens were abducted and killed by Hamas on the basis of orders from its headquarters in Istanbul.
On Oct. 22, 2020, The London Times reported that a secret Hamas cyberwar and counter-intelligence unit was operating in Istanbul separately from the main Hamas office, citing international intelligence sources.2 The clandestine unit is reportedly subordinate to the Hamas military wing and reports directly to senior Hamas official Samakh Saraj, who, in turn, takes orders from Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza.
According to the Times’ intelligence sources, the clandestine unit was also tasked with obtaining dual-use materials that Israel prohibited from entering Gaza for fear that Hamas will use them for weapons production.
The secret unit, which was supposedly unknown to Turkish authorities, also spies on other terror organizations and Hamas members suspected of disloyalty.
The likelihood that Turkey will sever its ties with Hamas, which periodically entangles Turkey with the international community, is not high. Turkey, under Erdoğan, is the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood axis in the Middle East, and the Brotherhood is the parent movement of Hamas.
Hamas got Turkey in trouble when Saudi Arabia discovered in 2019 that funds were being laundered and smuggled to the military wing in Gaza with the help of two large money-changing offices in Istanbul. More than 60 Hamas operatives were charged with “supporting and financing terrorism” and belonging to “a criminal terrorist entity.”3
Senior Hamas official and one-time Hamas representative in Saudi Arabia Muhammad al-Khudari, and his son Hani, were arrested. A Saudi court convicted the Hamas operatives and meted out sentences of up to 15 years.
According to press accounts, they were arrested on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after Israel and the United States provided Saudi intelligence with detailed information about their activity in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Saudi authorities have deported more than 100 Palestinians from the kingdom, mostly on charges of supporting Hamas financially, politically, or through social networking sites.4
In charge of the Hamas office in Turkey is Salah al-Arouri, the organization’s second in command, who serves as head of the Hamas military wing in the West Bank and the liaison with Hezbollah and Iran. However, according to sources in Gaza, it appears that the clandestine branch in Istanbul is a personal project of Gaza Hamas leader Sinwar and that he has used it mainly for the purposes of the military wing there.
After ten years of efforts, Israel has failed to get the Turkish authorities to close down the Hamas military wing in Istanbul. According to Hamas sources, the organization runs a sophisticated surveillance center in Istanbul that monitors media and communications within Israel and provides intelligence to Hezbollah and Iran.
This center is run by Abd al-Hakim Hanani, a henchman of Arouri. The latter, for his part, was forced to leave Turkey because of American-Israeli pressure5 and now resides in the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut, from which he runs the office in Istanbul.
Israeli intelligence sources say there is evidence that the Hamas branch in Turkey recruited and provided weapons to Sheikh Fadi Abu Shkhaydam, who last November murdered Israeli civilian Eliyahu Kay in the Old City of Jerusalem.
President Herzog’s Visit
Herzog’s office on Feb. 15 confirmed Erdoğan’s announcement regarding Herzog’s planned visit to Turkey. Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s top adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, and Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal will visit Israel for discussions in preparation for the visit.
Did Erdoğan use the media to announce Herzog’s visit prematurely? At that point, could Israel and the president have said no?
Israel must be very wary of providing Erdoğan with gifts, and especially of facilitating a coveted White House visit for him. This is the flip-flopping Turkish president who, as we have seen in the past, can turn on Israel at any moment and change his skin like a chameleon.
Erdoğan’s courtship also comes as Israel has expanded its strategic relations with Cyprus, Greece and Egypt.
Israel needs to ramp up diplomatic pressure on Turkey to close the Hamas office in Istanbul, which directs terror activity in the West Bank. Before that happens, there is no reason to rush to upgrade relations with Turkey. That office violates both Turkish and international law. Erdoğan allows it to keep operating despite Israel’s demands to close it, and despite the incriminating material Israel has given to Turkish intelligence. Turkey remains a state willing to provide a haven to terror organizations.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.