Turkey’s new envoy to Israel begins work after four years of suspended ties

Sakir Ozkan Torunlar, fomer diplomat to Palestinians, presents copy of credentials in Foreign Ministry, will officially begin work after meeting Herzog

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

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)
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)

Turkey’s incoming ambassador to Israel presented a copy of his letter of credence on Thursday in Jerusalem, allowing him to start working in a role that has been empty for more than four years.

Sakir Ozkan Torunlar gave the copy of the letter to Gil Haskel, the Foreign Ministry’s chief of state protocol, and is expected to present the original to President Isaac Herzog in the near future, allowing him to officially take up the position.

He began meeting with Foreign Ministry officials after sitting with Haskel.

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 this 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.

Israel’s charge d’affaires in Turkey, Irit Lillian (Foreign Ministry)

Lillian has 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.

Torunlar, who landed in Israel Wednesday, 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.

“I would like to officially welcome the newly appointed ambassador-designate of Turkey to the State of Israel,” said Haskel as the two posed for pictures with the flags of both countries behind them.

In his letter, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip 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 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 then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Erdogan maintained his rage, 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 in May of that year, 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 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.

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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