Israel’s newly reinstated envoy to Turkey presents credentials to Erdogan

Irit Lillian, key player in the two countries’ reconciliation, fills a post that has been vacant since 2018; Turkey’s ambassador expected to officially start work in January

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israel's ambassador to Turkey Irit Lillian (L) presents her letter of credence to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, December 27, 2022 (Presidency of the Republic of Turkey)
Israel's ambassador to Turkey Irit Lillian (L) presents her letter of credence to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, December 27, 2022 (Presidency of the Republic of Turkey)

Israel’s envoy to Ankara presented her letter of credentials to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday, filling a post that has been vacant for more than four years.

Irit Lillian, a senior diplomat who played a key role in Israeli-Turkish reconciliation, has been Israel’s charge d’affaires in Ankara since February 2021, during which time both sides moved slowly but steadily toward restoring full diplomatic relations.

After the ceremony at Erdogan’s massive presidential palace in Ankara — which included Israel’s Hatikvah national anthem played by a Turkish honor guard — Lillian expressed her hope that bilateral ties would continue to expand.

“We all expect that the process of growing closer diplomatically between Israel and Turkey will become stronger, will broaden and will spread over many areas of cooperation,” she said in a video statement.

In May 2018, Turkey recalled its ambassador and asked Israel’s envoy to leave in protest of Israel’s response to violent rioting on the Gaza border, in which dozens of Palestinians were killed.

In August of this year, Israel and Turkey announced the full renewal of diplomatic ties after two years of slow reconciliation, which picked up pace noticeably with mutual visits by senior officials.

“From the beginning, it was clear that we were building a process in which we agree to disagree,” Lillian, who has previously served as Israel’s ambassador to Bulgaria and Australia, told The Times of Israel during an August interview. “We are going into proper, positive bilateral relations that have a wide range of activities, but we know that there are points we don’t agree on,” she said. “We know we are not going into a perfect marriage.”

Turkey’s incoming ambassador to Israel, Sakir Ozkan Torunlar, presented a copy of his letter of credence at the beginning of the month in Jerusalem, allowing him to start working. He is expected to present the original to President Isaac Herzog on January 11, whereupon he can officially take up the position.

Sakir Ozkan Torunlar (right) presents a copy of his letter of credence to Gil Haskel, the Foreign Ministry’s chief of state protocol, December 1, 2022 (Foreign Ministry)

Torunlar is a veteran diplomat who previously served as Turkey’s consul general in Jerusalem — effectively its ambassador to the Palestinians — and was most recently ambassador to India.

In the letter presented by Torunlar, Erdogan emphasized his desire “to maintain and strengthen further the relations of friendship which happily exist between the Republic of Turkiye and the State of Israel.”

Israel was a longtime regional ally of Turkey before relations began to sour after Erdogan’s election.

Tensions came to a head during a 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, part of a blockade-busting flotilla, that left 10 Turkish activists dead in a violent melee after they attacked Israeli soldiers who boarded the ship.

Despite an official apology by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Erdogan stayed angry, accusing the Jewish state of “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive” during Operation Defensive Shield in July 2014 and calling it a “terrorist state.”

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

Relations later recovered somewhat, but both countries withdrew their ambassadors after Erdogan in 2018 leveled charges of “state terrorism” and “genocide” at Israel when dozens of Palestinians were killed in Gaza rioting after then-US president Donald Trump controversially moved the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Amid diplomatic signals this year indicating Erdogan was seeking détente with Israel, Herzog visited Ankara on an official trip in March and was welcomed in the capital by a full military procession.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid visited Ankara as well when he was foreign minister in June, where he met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. After the high-level talks aimed at cementing the countries’ rapprochement, Lapid hailed security cooperation with Turkey in helping foil an Iranian plot to kidnap or kill Israeli nationals in Istanbul that month.

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 Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Erdogan has been seeking to thaw relations with Israel and other regional rivals to reduce Turkey’s growing political and economic isolation.

The Turkish currency has plummeted in recent years, leaving Turkey in economic turmoil with an election slated for 2023.

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