Interview'There are storms, and there are times to enjoy the view'

Israel’s top diplomat in Turkey: ‘We’re not going into a perfect marriage’

Irit Lillian, who’s served as charge d’affaires throughout Israel-Turkey reconciliation, says ties designed to quietly handle disagreements, including over Hamas office in Istanbul

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israel's ambassador in Turkey, Irit Lillian (Foreign Ministry)
Israel's ambassador in Turkey, Irit Lillian (Foreign Ministry)

On Wednesday, Israel and Turkey announced they would be renewing full diplomatic ties after two years of work to patch up their damaged relationship.

Irit Lillian, Israel’s charge d’affaires in Ankara, has played a central role in the process since her appointment in February 2021.

“From the beginning, it was clear that we were building a process in which we agree to disagree,” Lillian told The Times of Israel during a Thursday interview.

“We know that there are a number of points that we currently don’t agree on. We can move forward and solve them later on.”

A major outstanding point of contention is the Hamas office in Istanbul, which Ankara insists only deals with political activities. Israel charges that Hamas uses its hub in Turkey to direct terror attacks and has publicly demanded that the office be shuttered.

“Hamas’s offices in Istanbul will be shut down,” promised then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in November after Israel announced the arrests of a 50-member West Bank-based Hamas cell being directed from Istanbul.

But “it’s still there, [and] it’s a huge obstacle,” Lillian acknowledged.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Israel’s President Isaac Herzog speak to the media after their talks, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. .(AP/Burhan Ozbilici)

Nonetheless,  Lillian — who has served as Israel’s ambassador to Bulgaria and Australia — indicated that the renewed ties are being constructed in a manner that enables the sides to handle tensions quietly and constructively.

“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.”

The two sides are creating a “deconfliction mechanism” that will help them through the almost inevitable disagreements. “We want to do everything we can to build a structure that can withstand political earthquakes in the future,” she explained.

Making lemonade

There is no shortage of potential points of friction. Beyond disagreements over the solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, both regional powers carry out military operations in Syria — though Turkey is far more deeply involved — and both are major players in natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

A helicopter flies over Turkey’s drilling ship, ‘Fatih’ dispatched towards the eastern Mediterranean, near Cyprus, on July 9, 2019. (Turkish Defence Ministry via AP, Pool)

But these issues also represent areas of potential collaboration.

During the reconciliation process, Israel and Turkey managed to turn thornier episodes into opportunities to build trust. In November, an Israeli couple was held for a week in Turkey for suspected espionage. Israeli leaders publicly thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for helping secure their release.

In June, Israel and Turkey worked to foil an Iranian plot to carry out attacks against Israeli tourists in the country to avenge a series of killings and strikes on Iranian military and nuclear targets.

“It was an incident that allowed excellent cooperation between the Turkish and Israeli security services,” said Lillian.

“These two episodes show that you can make lemonade out of lemons.”

Pumping in oxygen

Israel was convinced of Turkey’s seriousness by the level of official dialogue around restoring ties. Beyond high-profile visits to Turkey by President Isaac Herzog and Lapid, and phone calls between senior Israeli leaders and Erdogan, top advisers and diplomats held key meetings to drive the process forward.

Turkish and Israeli officials meet in Jerusalem on February 17, 2022, to prepare for President Isaac Herzog’s upcoming visit to Turkey. From left Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sadat Onal, head of the President’s Office Eyal Shviki and Senior Adviser to the Turkish President İbrahim Kalın (Courtesy)

In February, a Turkish delegation, headed by Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman and senior adviser to Erdogan, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sadat Onal met with Foreign Ministry Director General Alon Ushpiz and director general of the President’s Office Eyal Shviki. The officials laid out a roadmap for restoring full ties.

“That oxygen was missing from the relationship for too long,” Lillian said.

Once robust regional allies, Israel and Turkey saw their ties fray earlier in Erdogan’s tenure when the Turkish leader was a more outspoken critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Israel was also angered by Erdogan’s warm relations with Hamas, the terror group that controls the Gaza Strip.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Hamas terrorist movement chief Ismail Haniyeh, prior to their meeting in Istanbul, February 1, 2020. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

The countries reciprocally withdrew their ambassadors in 2010 after Israeli forces boarded a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for the Palestinians that attempted to break an Israeli blockade of Gaza. Though most of the participating vessels were boarded without incident, those onboard a Turkish ferry boat violently resisted the Israeli action, resulting in the deaths of 10 Turkish activists.

Relations slowly improved but broke down again in 2018, after Turkey, angered by the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem, once more recalled its envoy from Israel, prompting Israel to reciprocate.

The long journey to last week’s announcement began in May 2020, as an El Al plane landed in Turkey for the first time in 10 years as part of an operation to bring medical supplies to Israel at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Israel’s ambassador to Turkey Eitan Na’eh undergoing a strict security screening at an Istanbul airport on May 16, 2018, after being ordered out of the country. (Screen capture)

In the ensuing months, Turkey — facing regional isolation, economic woes, and a potentially hostile president in the White House — showed itself the more eager partner. Israel, enjoying growing ties with Turkey’s rivals and insistent on seeing evidence that Ankara wouldn’t pull an about-face, was content to sit back.

The slow process picked up steam over the past year, with a new Israeli government in power and Herzog taking an active diplomatic role.

There are several steps that will be taken in the coming weeks to reflect the current positive trend. Israel’s economic consul will be sent to Istanbul to resume operations from Israel’s consulate in the city after three years away.

An aviation agreement allowing Israeli carriers to resume flights to Turkey for the first time since 2007 is expected to be wrapped up soon as well.

Israel also has to go through its process of choosing an ambassador, which is more complicated during a transition government and will require the approval of Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara as well as the Foreign Ministry committee that selects envoys.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks alongside his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, in Ankara on June 23, 2022. (Boaz Oppenheim/GPO)

Lillian expressed hope that Lapid will tap a professional diplomat for the post rather than a political appointee.

Open doors

Despite arriving in Ankara when bilateral ties were still reeling, Lillian said Turkish officials were far more receptive to her than she had anticipated.

“I was ready to be told I wouldn’t be able to meet with senior officials and for officials at lower levels to put a lot of bureaucracy in the way,” she said. “But it didn’t happen. Doors were opened for me.”

Though there were some limits on her access, Lillian said that she felt Turkish officials wanted to speak to her.

Lillian likened serving as an Israeli diplomat in Turkey to sailing in the Mediterranean Sea. “There are stormier times, and there are the calm times where you just enjoy the view.”

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