Turkey has essentially barred Israeli airlines, thus monopolizing the highly lucrative route between Israel and Turkey, but Israel is doing nothing about it for fear of exacerbating its already frayed diplomatic relations with Ankara, The Times of Israel has established.
Air traffic between the two countries has actually soared by over 150 percent since the 2010 Gaza flotilla episode that sent bilateral ties hurtling into the abyss. But only Turkey is benefiting from the increase: The total number of Turkish airline flights out of Ben Gurion each week has reached a staggering 112. The total number of Israeli airline flights on the route: zero.
For reasons Jerusalem blames squarely on Ankara, Israeli airlines have been unable to fly to any destinations in Turkey since 2007, and are locked out of the market. Israeli officials are deeply unhappy about what they consider an unfair situation in which the Turks have found a cash cow in Israel, but maneuvered in order to leave Israel’s airlines with nothing.
Turkish Airlines now operates more flights out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport than any other airline except for Israel’s national carrier El Al. The Turkish state-owned company currently operates no fewer than 53 weekly flights from Tel Aviv to Istanbul, according to its regional marketing manager Selin Stella Rattan. Pegasus Airlines and other Turkish charter companies together offer an additional 59 weekly flights connecting the two countries, bringing the total number of Turkish flights out of Ben Gurion to a staggering 112.
This constitutes a 166% increase on 2010, when the total weekly number of Turkish airline flights from Tel Aviv stood at 42.
This year, the number of passengers who flew from Israel to Turkey climbed by 63%, from 526,469 to 856,982, according to Israel Airports Authority figures. From there, many of the passengers travel on to destinations worldwide.
Until 2007, Israeli companies operated about 30 weekly flights to and from Turkey. But starting that year, Turkish authorities ceased accommodating Israel’s security requirements, effectively barring Israeli companies from landing in Turkey. Israel’s security agencies have higher security requirements than other countries’ regarding the operation of flights. Officials in Jerusalem refused to specify Israel’s security demands on record, but in private conversations squarely blame Turkish authorities for deliberately making the Israelis’ lives more difficult.
The Turks refuse to allow Israel security personnel “to perform the security checks on passengers boarding flights to Israel,” according to Flightglobal.com, a leading website covering the aviation and aerospace industries. “It is not the first time that a country has been uncomfortable with the presence of armed Israeli security personnel in its airports. Russia and Denmark have taken a similar stance in the past, but eventually agreed to lift the restrictions.”
Because of the strained relationship between Turkey and Israel, Jerusalem has so far refused to raise the issue in high-level talks with Ankara. But El Al CEO Eliezer Shkedi, fuming about what he says is an inherently unfair state of affairs, last week wrote an angry letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decrying “the unfathomable and incomprehensible situation relating to Turkey in general and Turkish and Israeli airlines in specific.”
Citing a Turkish “refusal” to operate Israeli flights, Shkedi attacked “the State of Israel’s incomprehensible support for the international expansion of Turkish airlines at the expense of Israeli airlines that are prevented from flying.”
In his October 22 letter, Shkedi lamented the government’s unwillingness to act on behalf of Israeli companies. As long as Israeli planes cannot land in Turkey, Shkedi wrote to Netanyahu, Turkish planes should be barred from Israel as well. “This is the minimum required of a country that respects itself, yet it is not happening.”
On May 31, 2010 pro-Palestinian activists and IDF troops clashed aboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara ship, resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. The so-called flotilla incident precipitated a dramatic deterioration in already strained Israeli-Turkish relations. On March 22 this year, at the personal behest of US President Barack Obama, Netanyahu spoke to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, apologizing for “operational mistakes” during the boarding of the ship, and pledging to compensate the families of those killed. In turn, Erdoğan agreed to restore warm diplomatic ties with Israel.
So far, however, a genuine détente between the formerly close allies remains elusive, partially because of Erdoğan’s relentless accusations against Israel, anti-Semitic statements and alleged breaches of confidence.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that Ankara in early 2012 blew the cover of several Iranian intelligence assets who had secretly been meeting with Mossad handlers in Turkey. The move constituted a “significant” loss of intelligence for Jerusalem and could be interpreted as “an effort to slap the Israelis,” the paper wrote.
As long as Erdoğan is in power, Israeli-Turkish relations will not be as cordial as they were under his predecessors, even after the current negotiations over compensation payments for the flotilla victims are concluded, Israeli officials assess. “He really hates us — the honeymoon is over,” a senior diplomatic official familiar with Turkey told The Times of Israel.
Besides discussing the sum to be paid in compensation (estimated to end up in the $15-25 million range overall), the negotiations over the flotilla incident are reportedly focusing on whether the payments will be labeled “assistance to families” (as Israel wishes) or “restitution for the deaths of nine Turkish civilians” (as Ankara demands). As long as these highly sensitive negotiations — conducted for Israel by officials from the Prime Minister’s Office — are ongoing, the Israeli government has been hesitant to revisit the four-year-old aviation agreement between the two countries.
In December 2009, Turkish and Israeli officials signed a deal that allowed for more flight destinations and removed frequency restrictions that had been in place since 1951.
In private conversations, officials are fuming. “On merit, we should ban Turkish flights to Israel tomorrow,” a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel. “But currently we don’t want to open another front with the Turks.”
It was grossly unfair that “Israel has become a goldmine for Turkish companies,” while the Turks’ inflexibility concerning Israel’s legitimate security concerns still prevents Israeli companies from competing in this multi-million dollar market, he said.
In the immediate aftermath of the flotilla raid, Israeli tourism to Turkey receded, but it has recently been increasing.
Jerusalem is also wary of challenging Ankara on the aviation front because it hopes for Turkey’s assistance in a bid to join the Western European and Others Group at the United Nations Human Rights Council. After an 18-month boycott, Israel this week cooperated with the Geneva-based body, under the condition that European nations help it join WEOG. As of now, Israel belongs to no regional group at the UNHRC, a situation that severely impacts its ability to advance its interests in the forum. Turkey is a member of WEOG and could theoretically torpedo Israel’s admission bid, since it requires unanimous approval.
In his letter to Netanyahu, El Al’s Shkedi spoke of a “refusal” to let Israeli planes land in Turkey, “for different and strange reasons. We’re simply being prevented from flying to Turkey.”
Jerusalem needs to rectify the current situation, which allows Turkish companies to operate 112 weekly flights out of Israel, while the Turks do not allow even one Israeli plane to land in their country, he wrote. “I ask you to clearly and unequivocally prompt the relevant parties to work toward allowing Israeli airlines to compete. A solution should be demanded as a condition to continue Turkish flights to Israel, and any increase in frequencies should immediately be stopped until an appropriate solution is found.”
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to respond to a Times of Israel query on the matter.