Turkey: Israel is committed to Temple Mount status quo

Meeting Erdogan in Ankara, FM Cohen raises issue of Israelis held by Hamas in Gaza

On solidarity trip after earthquake, foreign minister expresses Israel’s condolences, discusses Iranian nuclear program with Turkey’s president

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) meets Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, February 14, 2023 (Presidency of the Republic of Turkiye)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) meets Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, February 14, 2023 (Presidency of the Republic of Turkiye)

Meeting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen raised the issue of Israeli civilians and the bodies of IDF soldiers being held by Hamas in Gaza, according to Israeli sources.

Hamas is holding two Israeli men, along with the remains of two soldiers killed during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. Israeli authorities have been quietly engaged in fruitless negotiations for their release for years.

Erdogan has fostered a close relationship with the Hamas terror group, which took power in the Gaza Strip in 2007.

In addition to providing financial and logistical support to the group, which is considered a terrorist organization by much of the West, Turkey is home to senior Hamas officials, including Saleh al-Arouri, a long-time Istanbul resident. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and former chief Khaled Mashaal also visit Turkey.

Israel has asked Turkey to expel Hamas officials, but moved ahead with the recent rapprochement without Ankara conceding to the request.

Cohen and Erdogan also discussed Iran’s nuclear program, the sources said.

Israeli captives in Gaza Avera Mengistu (left) and Hisham al-Sayed. (Flash 90/Courtesy)

Erdogan hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Ankara in January.

Cohen is in Ankara for a one-day solidarity visit in the wake of last week’s earthquakes that left at least 35,000 dead in Turkey and Syria.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry readout of the meeting, Cohen promised to continue to providing aid to survivors of the earthquakes and to continue strengthening bilateral ties.

“We have been working lately to strengthen them,” said Cohen. “Friends are measured in this difficult time. Israel extends its arm and expresses solidarity with the Turkish people.”

Erdogan’s willingness to meet Cohen is a possible sign of Ankara’s deep appreciation for Israeli rescue efforts, as he scrambles to counter growing outrage over his government’s policies on building codes and corruption before the quakes.

Erdogan is also facing criticism over the speed and effectiveness of the government’s response to the disaster.

Israel’s top diplomat met with his counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, for the first time on Tuesday morning.

Cohen said in a statement after the meeting that the two discussed ways to advance bilateral relations beyond earthquake relief. Cohen will also visit the field hospital Israel set up in the country.

“Israel stands with Turkey,” said Cohen in Turkish at the end of his remarks.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is greeted in Ankara by Deputy Governor Murat Soylu, February 14, 2023 (Foreign Ministry)

Speaking in Turkish alongside Cohen, Cavusoglu said that he brought up Ankara’s “expectations for the reduction of the escalating tension in the Palestinian issue.”

He added that he stressed the importance of preserving the status quo on the Temple Mount.

“We have seen that the Israeli government is also willing to preserve this status,” Cavusoglu said.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (R) is greeted by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara, February 14, 2023 (Foreign Ministry)

Upon landing, Cohen said he would express “the condolences of the Israeli people” to Erdogan and Cavusoglu.

“Israel stands alongside Turkey at this difficult time, and will continue to assist her through the activities of our forces and by providing humanitarian goods,” he added.

Cohen was greeted at the airport in Ankara by regional Deputy Governor Murat Soylu.

Israel kept the visit under wraps until Cohen landed for security reasons. A delegation from the United Hatzalah emergency response organization to Turkey cut short its mission and returned to Israel early over security concerns.

On Saturday, Austrian military and German civilian rescue workers suspended their search operations in Turkey, in nearby Hatay, due to a worsening security situation, their representatives said.

Cohen spoke with Cavusoglu during his first week as foreign minister, when the Turkish official called in early January to express concern over National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount a day earlier.

“We find the provocative action of Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir against the Al-Aqsa Mosque unacceptable,” Cavusoglu’s office quoted him as telling Cohen.

After Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory in November, Erdogan and Netanyahu held a very positive phone call, sources told The Times of Israel, with both leaders pledging not to surprise the other.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a survivor speak as he visits the city center destroyed by an earthquake in Kahramanmaras, southern Turkey, February 8, 2023. (Turkish Presidency via AP)

President Isaac Herzog called Erdogan last week to offer Israel’s condolences on the losses suffered in the deadly earthquakes that hit Turkey.

According to Israeli officials, Israel’s field hospital has so far treated 412 people wounded by the quake. It will continue to operate at least until the end of the week.

In addition, Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command teams — which also included some Magen David Adom paramedics and Fire and Rescue Service officials — managed to rescue 19 civilians from the rubble in southeastern Turkey. The IDF team landed back in Israel on Monday.

People stand on top of rubble of collapsed buildings during rescue operations after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the border region of Turkey and Syria last week, in Hatay, Turkey, February 12, 2023. (BULENT KILIC/AFP)

In August of last year, Israel and Turkey announced a full renewal of diplomatic ties. More than four years before, Turkey recalled its ambassador and asked the Israeli envoy to leave in protest of Israel’s response to rioting on the Gaza border, in which dozens of Palestinians were killed.

Facing hardening diplomatic isolation and economic woes, Erdogan began to publicly display an openness to rapprochement in December 2020.

Cohen is expected to pay a solidarity visit to Kyiv as well in the near future.

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