Israel moves toward easing Turkey travel warning, though threat remains

Decision to decrease severity of alert still must clear bureaucracy before becoming official, according to report, after several Iranian terror cells busted last week

Two Turkish riot police officers walk in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, on June 14, 2022. (Yasin Akgul/AFP)
Two Turkish riot police officers walk in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, on June 14, 2022. (Yasin Akgul/AFP)

Israel may roll back an extraordinary advisory warning its citizens away from Turkey last week, after an Iranian plot to kidnap or kill Israeli in Istanbul was apparently foiled, according to reports Sunday.

The Israeli travel warning, which called on citizens to avoid travel to Istanbul for any reason and to avoid unnecessary travel to anywhere else in Turkey has been in place since June 13. Officials in both countries indicated recently that they were seeking to have the restriction lifted in time for the summer travel season.

Channel 12 news reported Sunday that a decision to lift the warning had been made, but it was remaining in place due to unspecified bureaucracy, citing an unnamed source.

The claim could not be verified, and while Israeli officials have indicated that the recent arrest of Iranian agents accused of plotting against Israelis has lowered the level of danger, Turkey is still not totally safe for Israeli tourists, and it is not known whether elements of the warning will remain in place.

Officially, the government said in a statement Sunday that the warning remains as is, but that they hoped to be able to change their instructions soon so that Israelis would be able to travel to the popular destination “without fear.”

It was not clear if the delay of the warning being lifted was related to Israel’s own internal political turbulence; travel warnings are issued by the Counter-Terror Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office, which is being transitioned from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who is set to take over as prime minister sometime in the coming days.

Lapid issued the original warning hours before it was distributed in official channels, and has been at the forefront of Israel’s diplomatic rapprochement with Turkey. During a visit to Ankara Thursday, he said Israel was looking to lift the warning, which had threatened to upend the delicate resumption of diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey.

According to Lapid and other Israeli authorities, significant intelligence had indicated that Iran was seeking to carry out attacks against Israeli tourists in the country to avenge a series of killings and strikes on Iranian military and nuclear targets that have been attributed to the Jewish state.

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

A senior security official briefing Hebrew media on Friday said that the Mossad and local counterparts thwarted three Iranian attacks targeting Israeli civilians in Istanbul in recent days.

The security official said Mossad intelligence had led Turkish authorities to 10 members of an Iranian cell who were allegedly planning to kidnap and murder a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey and his wife. The 10 were arrested Thursday, the official said.

Israel’s Mossad spy agency chartered private aircraft to immediately bring the pair and others in Istanbul back to the country, Hebrew reports said. The name of the diplomat has not yet been released.

According to the official, the Mossad managed to thwart two other plots against Israelis in Istanbul in recent days as well, with the tourists escaping the country at the “last possible second.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh denied Jerusalem’s warnings of a Tehran-directed plot in Turkey, calling the claims “baseless” and part of a “pre-designed scenario to destroy relations between the two Muslim countries.”

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman responded on Twitter: “For several weeks now, Iranian terrorist cells have been trying to assassinate innocent Israelis on Turkish soil at the direction of Iran’s terrorist government.”

Mourners gather around the coffin of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards colonel Sayyad Khodaei during a funeral procession at Imam Hussein square in the capital Tehran, on May 24, 2022. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Iran and Israel have been engaged in a years-long shadow war, but tensions have ratcheted up following a string of high-profile incidents Tehran has blamed on Israel.

The Islamic Republic claimed Israel was responsible for the killing of Revolutionary Guards Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei in his Tehran home on May 22. Khodaei’s assassination was the most high-profile killing inside Iran since the November 2020 killing of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

On Thursday, Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which also handles operations outside of the country, announced that it was replacing the head of its intelligence unit, Hossein Taeb, who held the position for over a decade.

Taeb has been repeatedly named in Hebrew media reports as the man behind the planned attacks on Israelis in Turkey.

Guards commander Major General Hossein Salami appointed General Mohammad Kazemi to head the intelligence unit instead, Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported.

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