FM: 'Intel leaves no doubt' Iran behind the terror attempts

In Ankara, Lapid praises security ties with Turkey after alleged Iran terror bust

Foreign minister thanks Turkish leadership for cooperation to save lives of Israeli visitors; Cavusoglu says talks on returning ambassadors have begun

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speak to the media after their talks, in Ankara, Turkey, June 23, 2022. (AP/Burhan Ozbilici)
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speak to the media after their talks, in Ankara, Turkey, June 23, 2022. (AP/Burhan Ozbilici)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hailed security cooperation with Turkey in helping foil an Iranian plot to kidnap or kill Israeli nationals in Istanbul, as he met his counterpart in Ankara for high-level talks aimed at cementing the countries’ rapprochement Thursday.

Standing next to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after talks in the Turkish capital, Lapid said Israel is confident that Ankara “knows how to respond to the Iranians” in the wake of ongoing attempts to harm Israeli travelers on Turkish soil.

“The lives of Israeli citizens have been saved thanks to security and diplomatic cooperation between Israel and Turkiye,” said Lapid, using the country’s new official name.

“Iran is behind these attempted terrorist attacks,” said Lapid. “The intelligence leaves no doubt about it.”

“Israel won’t sit idly by when there are attempts to harm its citizens in Israel and around the world,” he pledged, speaking in English.

While in Ankara, Lapid also reportedly met with Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization who is considered close with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to Hebrew media reports, the two discussed efforts to thwart the alleged Iranian attack plans.

Earlier in the day, Turkish media reported that the country’s security forces detained several people allegedly working for an Iranian intelligence cell that planned to assassinate or snatch Israeli tourists in Istanbul.

Turkish authorities arrest an alleged Iranian cell that sought to target Israelis in Istanbul on June 23, 2022. (Screen capture/CNN Turkey)

The news of the bust, and Lapid’s visit, came weeks after Israel ordered its citizens in Istanbul to leave immediately, warning of an imminent Iranian attack plot targeting Israelis in Turkey.

Speaking before Lapid, Cavusoglu promised Turkey would never allow Iran to carry out attacks on its soil.

“We can never allow such things to unfold in our country, and we will never allow such things to take place in our country,” he said.

Lapid thanked Turkey for the coordination and said the sides were aiming to lower the Israeli travel warning before the peak summer travel season.

The warning had strained the newly revived ties as Ankara chafed at being portrayed as an unsafe tourism destination in international media reports. Turkey had been a top destination for Israeli tourists in the past and Ankara has sought to reinvigorate the sector along with the renewed ties.

Lapid said it is crucial that the two sides finish the process of allowing Israeli airlines to once again fly to Turkey, discussed during Cavusoglu’s May visit to Israel.

“In the last year, there was great progress in the relations between Israel and Turkiye,” said Lapid. “We began to hold discussions on returning ambassadors in the near future, and on improving our economic and political dialogue.”

“I hope we will complete these steps soon.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at a pro-Palestinian rally in Istanbul on May 18, 2018. (AFP Photo/Ozan Kose)

Speaking in Turkish through a translator, Cavusoglu said that mutual visits would continue, promising that the process would result in the return of ambassadors.

There will be trade meetings in July and in September, Cavusoglu revealed.

“We would also like to continue our dialogue in the field of energy,” he emphasized, referring to large gas finds that have transformed the eastern Mediterranean. Israel has been allied on energy distribution with Turkey’s rivals Greece and Cyprus.

Turkey and Israel were once close allies, but relations grew tense under Erdogan, who is a vocal critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Turkey’s embrace of the Islamic terror group Hamas has angered Israel.

The countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces stormed a blockade-busting flotilla bound for Gaza, setting off a melee that left 10 Turkish nationals dead and a number of Israeli soldiers severely injured.

Though Lapid avoided the topic in his statement, Cavusoglu said that the Israeli-Palestinian issue came up in their meeting “We expressed our expectations and sensitivities, and the Israeli side knows all of those very well,” he said, stressing Ankara’s support for a two-state solution and the need to avoid “steps that would harm the peace process.”

The two diplomats also discussed the import of Turkish fruit to Israel, and cooperation in fighting wildfires.

Cavusoglu wished Lapid success as prime minister, a role he is expected to take up sometime next week. He decided not to cancel the trip despite the political turmoil at home, and is expected to land back in Israel this evening.

On Monday, outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel was “working closely with Turkish officials to thwart attempts to strike Israelis and Jews,” adding that “cooperation between Turkey and Israel is tight and is being carried out on all levels,” he said.

Israel has issued a series of repeated severe warnings to Israeli travelers in recent weeks to avoid visiting Turkey and said it has foiled attempted attacks with the help of Turkish authorities.

A Turkish police officer walks in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, on June 14, 2022. (Yasin Akgul/AFP)

There are currently believed to be some 2,000 Israelis in Turkey. On Sunday, Channel 12 news reported that fewer Israelis were heading to the country, without providing updated figures or sources.

The warning followed reports indicating that the Iranians have been planning attacks for months, apparently in revenge for the slayings of senior officers and others blamed on Israel.

In late May, senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer Hassan Sayyad Khodaei was gunned down outside his home in Tehran. An unnamed US intelligence official told The New York Times that Israel told Washington it had carried out the attack, which Israel has not confirmed.

Khodaei’s assassination was the most high-profile killing inside Iran since the November 2020 killing of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

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