Ending a half-decade-long diplomatic freeze, Turkey’s new ambassador to Israel on Monday hailed a “new beginning” in bilateral ties and called the Jewish state Ankara’s “partner and friend.”
Mekin Mustafa Kemal Okem handed his letter of credence to President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem and officially assumed the post of Turkey’s first ambassador to Israel in five years, the fruit of years of intense detente efforts following a deadly 2010 raid that soured relations between Jerusalem and Ankara.
Israel’s new ambassador in Ankara, Eitan Na’eh, handed his credentials to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week.
“This is a new beginning in our bilateral relations and in our joint efforts, in this region in which we have close ties, historical ties,” Okem said in English at the ceremony, held at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. “Our region offers more than its share of challenges but also of big opportunities. As before, Turkey and Israel will work together to make sure that these opportunities are fully utilized and challenges are met.”
Okem is seen as a close confidant of Erdogan and he said he had been instructed by him and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım to “explore all opportunities for cooperation in every field to the mutual benefit of our two nations.”
“And, as an ambassador, I will do my best to enhance our relations in every field — regardless of any difficulties that we may face, we will be able to overcome together with our partners and friends Israel.”
Ties were frozen following a raid by Israeli forces on a Gaza blockade-busting ship in which 10 Turks were killed in a melee after they attacked IDF troops.
Before that, Israel and Turkey were close economic partners, including in the defense field.
The two countries plan to look now to expand that cooperation to the energy industry, with Turkey keen to pipeline Israeli gas pulled out of the Mediterranean to Europe.
However, Turkey and particularly Erdogan have remained strident critics of Israeli policies regarding Palestinians, and Ankara has maintained close contact with Gaza-ruling Hamas, which Israel considers a terror group.
Okem expressed Turkey’s hope that the reconciliation signed between Ankara and Jerusalem earlier this year would lead to the “benefit of other nations, particularly to the Palestinian Authority as well.”
He thanked Israel for allowing Turkey deliver aid to Gaza, which was a key condition for the detente.
Okem, who was accompanied by his wife and two sons, thanked Rivlin for expressing condolences after Saturday’s deadly terror attack in Istanbul.
“Yesterday also we had other attacks in Cairo, also there was another attack in Mogadishu,” he said. “As Turkey has been subject to vicious terrorist attacks and [having] suffered so much, we always say we condemn all forms of terrorism regardless of its origin or its target.”
During Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted the arrival of Turkey’s new ambassador as an “important event” and condemned the “severe” terror attack.
But he also called on Turkey to do the same.
“Israel condemns all terrorism in Turkey and expects that Turkey will condemn all terrorist attacks in Israel,” he said. “The fight against terrorism must be mutual. It must be mutual in condemnation and in countermeasures, and this is what the State of Israel expects from all countries it is in contact with, including Turkey.”
Ankara rarely, if ever, condemns terror attacks against Israelis.
After having received Okem’s letter of credence, Rivlin also addressed Saturday’s terror attack in Istanbul and the need to for a joint effort to combat violent extremism.
“All life is sacred. Terror is terror is terror — whether in Brussels or Paris, Istanbul, Jerusalem, or Cairo. We have a duty to stand together against this terrible threat, he said.
The president called Monday’s successful conclusion of a lengthy reconciliation process “a real moment in history.” He expressed his “appreciation for President Erdogan” and thanked him again for Turkey’s aid in fighting wildfires across Israel last month.
The two presidents spoke on the phone on November 27, including about the remains of Israelis held by Hamas. “I want to thank him for his commitment to help return the Israelis, and the bodies of our soldiers held by Hamas,” Rivlin said.
“Israel, like Turkey, places great importance in rebuilding the lives of the civilians in Gaza; in infrastructure, economy, energy, water, and more. This must be with the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority. It is also an important way to show that we can live together in this region,” the president said. “Israel and Turkey share a desire for peace and prosperity for all the peoples of the Middle East.”
The Turkish-Israeli friendship “goes back in history,” the president continued, “and I hope that the reconciliation and the appointment of new ambassadors will open a new and promising page in this relationship,” he said, reading from prepared remarks.
“We must work together, to promote our economic relations, trade and energy cooperation as a real engine of growth for our friendship.”
Rivlin said in a changing region, Turkey and Israel must find ways to strengthen “voices of peace and stability.”
Despite restored ties, Erdogan has not ceased to criticize Israel harshly.
“Policies of oppression, deportation and discrimination have been increasingly continuing against our Palestinian brothers since 1948,” he said two weeks ago at the first annual conference of the association of “Parliamentarians for Al-Quds” in Istanbul. “It is the common duty of all Muslims to embrace the Palestinian cause and protect Jerusalem,” he added.
In November, the Turkish president accused Israel of trying to change the status quo at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
In an interview with an Israeli television channel aired earlier last month, Erdogan also slightly walked back a 2014 assertion that the IDF’s 2014 offensive in Gaza was more barbaric than Hitler, but made no apology for invoking the Nazi leader’s name in the context.
He said he was “well aware” of the sensitivities, while simultaneously condemning Israel’s “barbarism” against the Palestinians.
“I don’t agree with what Hitler did and I also don’t agree with what Israel did in Gaza. Therefore, there’s no place for comparison in order to say what’s more barbaric,” he said.