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Turkey’s envoy to Israel presents credentials after four years of suspended ties

Sakir Ozkan Torunlar mentions Temple Mount status quo, but not Palestinians, in speech; President Herzog invites Erdogan to Israel

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Sakir Ozkan Torunlar (R), Turkey's ambassador to Israel, delivers his etter of credence to President Isaac Herzog, January 11, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)
Sakir Ozkan Torunlar (R), Turkey's ambassador to Israel, delivers his etter of credence to President Isaac Herzog, January 11, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Turkey’s new ambassador to Israel presented his credentials to President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday in Jerusalem, officially filling a role that has been empty for more than four years.

Sakir Ozkan Torunlar, who landed in Israel in November, 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 garden of the President’s Residence, an IDF band played Turkey’s national anthem as the Turkish flag was raised. Torunlar then strode on the red carpet into the building where he delivered the letter to the awaiting president.

In his speech alongside Torunlar after receiving the letter, Herzog invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Israel.

“It is a relationship that has known crises in the past but is now, to our delight, on a very encouraging trajectory,” said Herzog, pointing at the potential for cooperation in tourism, academia, energy, science, culture and agriculture.

In his Turkish-language speech, Torunlar stressed the importance of maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount, but notably did not mention the Palestinian issue.

Sakir Ozkan Torunlar (L), Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, shakes hands with President Isaac Herzog, January 11, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Last week, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told his Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen that National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount the day before was “unacceptable.”

In his speech, Torunlar also expressed Turkey’s hope that bilateral trade would grow to $15 billion in the near future. In 2021, that figure stood at $7.7 billion, an increase of about 30% compared to the year before.

In the President’s Residence guestbook, Torunlar wrote that he believes “the already existing friendly relations between our two countries” would continue expanding.

The ambassadors of Australia, Philippines, El Salvador and Korea also presented their credentials to Herzog earlier Wednesday.

In early December, Torunlar gave a copy of his letter of credence to Gil Haskel, the Foreign Ministry’s chief of state protocol, allowing him to get to work.

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

In August of last year, Israel and Turkey announced a full renewal of diplomatic ties.

The next month, Israel announced that Irit Lillian, a senior diplomat who played a key role in Israel-Turkey reconciliation, would serve as the next ambassador to Turkey. She presented her credentials to Erdogan two weeks ago in Ankara.

Lillian had been Israel’s charge d’affaires in Ankara since February 2021, during which time both sides moved slowly but steadily to restore full diplomatic relations.

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

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

Tensions came to a head during the 2010 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Erdogan accused the Jewish state of “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive” during Operation Defensive Shield in July 2014 and calling it a “terrorist state.”

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 in May of that year, after then-US president Donald Trump controversially moved the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Amid diplomatic signals last 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.

Former prime minister Yair Lapid visited Ankara when he was foreign minister last June, where he met with 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.

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 this year.

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