Herzog: Revival of Israel-Turkey ties could have come sooner

Herzog: Revival of Israel-Turkey ties could have come sooner

Opposition chief joins former FM Liberman in warning against allowing Turkey a ‘foothold’ in Hamas-ruled Gaza

File: Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog speaking at the faction's convention in Tel Aviv, November 8, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
File: Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog speaking at the faction's convention in Tel Aviv, November 8, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog on Friday criticized the government’s “foot-dragging” on renewing diplomatic ties with Turkey.

The revelation of a secret meeting Wednesday between senior Israeli and Turkish officials has signaled a new push for warmer ties between the two countries, which deteriorated sharply with the rise of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-focused movement to power in recent years, and ruptured following the May 2010 IDF raid on a Turkish vessel seeking to break Israel’s military blockade of the Gaza Strip.

“If we’d reached an agreement with Turkey two or even three years ago, Israel would have gotten more out of it,” Herzog said at a Limmud FSU conference in Kibbutz Ginosar in the north.

He blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the delay. “Netanyahu, as usual, dragged his feet and acted out of fear of [Yisrael Beytenu chairman MK Avigdor] Liberman and other coalition partners, and therefore the cost [Israel paid] is higher. I have specific information that shows this is the case.”

The Wednesday meeting, which took place in Switzerland, “is a step in the right direction,” Herzog said, “but we must make sure it doesn’t result in Erdogan getting a foothold in Gaza. The relationship with Turkey must be strengthened in other fields.”

Liberman, a foreign minister in the previous Netanyahu government and now an opposition lawmaker, also criticized the impending agreement.

“The agreement has yet to be finalized, but its diplomatic damage is already done,” he charged in a talk at Limmud FSU.

“Opportunism is not a substitute for wise, considered policy. Erdogan leads a radical Islamist regime. The Turks trade with Daesh [Islamic State], invaded Iraq against all international rules, and have tense relations with Russia. We’ve invested in the relationship with Greece and Cyprus in recent years, and this move will hurt those relations. It will also hurt relations with Egypt, because I can’t see Erdogan giving up his demands on Gaza, and any foothold the Turks get in Gaza will be at Egypt’s expense.”

Among those attending the Wednesday talks in Zurich, an official at the Prime Minister’s Office said, were National Security Council chief Yossi Cohen (the incoming head of the Mossad spy agency), former Foreign Ministry director-general Joseph Ciechanover (who serves as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s point man on Israeli-Turkish relations) and Feridun Sinirlioğlua, the current director-general of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

Understandings reached at the talks are intended to serve as the basis for an agreement to be signed in the next few days. The agreement was reached days after Erdogan indicated that he would like to see bilateral ties revived.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official confirmed the details of the Switzerland talks to the Turkish outlet Hurriyet Daily News, saying that a détente with Israel may be imminent.

Navy vessels escort the Mavi Marmara to the Ashdod port on May 31, 2010. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Israeli Navy vessels escort the Mavi Marmara to the port of Ashdod, May 31, 2010. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Relations between Jerusalem and Ankara broke down after the Israeli Navy intercepted a flotilla led by the Mavi Marmara, which was seeking to breach Israel’s security blockade on Hamas-run Gaza in May 2010. The Israeli raid ended with nine dead Turkish activists and dozens wounded, after Naval commandos were attacked with clubs and poles as they boarded the vessel.

Tension between the countries, already high, escalated further, and Erdogan, then the prime minister, recalled his ambassador. Israel recalled its own ambassador in retaliation and Turkey also began legal proceedings against senior IDF officials, including then IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and then Navy commander Eliezer Marom.

In 2013, President Barack Obama brokered an Israeli apology to Ankara, but hopes for a return to full normalization were not realized.

According to the PMO official, the agreement is to provide for both countries to return their ambassadors, a cancellation of pending lawsuits against IDF soldiers, the establishment by Israel of a fund for the welfare of victims of the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, and a Turkish commitment not to tolerate any “terrorist activities” on its sovereign territory, including Turkey barring from its soil Salah Arouri, a Hamas operative who allegedly orchestrated the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank in June 2014.

The agreement also calls for Turkey to allow Israel to lay down a gas pipeline on its soil, and the opening of immediate negotiations on the sale of natural gas from Israel to Turkey.

Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold already held secret meetings with his counterpart Sinirlioğlua and other senior Turkish officials in June, in what many observers saw as a first sign of a pending thaw in bilateral ties.

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