There is a wide spectrum of opportunity and potential in bilateral ties between Türkiye and Israel, Tel Aviv’s charge d’affaires said after both countries restored full diplomatic relations in a historic move recently
This time we aim to build our relations on good, solid foundations that are also sustainable and flexible so as to overcome challenges, Israel’s Charge d’Affaires Irit Lillian said after Ankara and Tel Aviv’s recent step toward normalizing relations, underlining that ties with third countries should not serve as an obstacle.
“We know very well that crisis in our region exists – it is not a matter of if but a matter of when. We have to make sure that eruptions are not going to destroy our relations and hurt what is being achieved in the past year,” Lillian told a group of journalists.
“As part of this reset of relations, we put a lot of emphasis on the deconfliction mechanism,” she said, noting that the mechanism serves as an essential channel of dialogue to address tensions or crises between the two countries while acknowledging that it was put to test in the past few months.
“We make sure that this channel of communication is active, that things are being explained. Because our main task by repairing our relations is to contribute as much as possible to peace, stability and security in the region.”
Türkiye and Israel sealed a rapprochement from a decade of rocky relations by announcing plans to reappoint ambassadors for the first time in four years as a result of a reconciliation process that has been going on since December.
The two regional powers had expelled ambassadors in 2018 over the killing of 60 Palestinians by Israeli forces during protests on the Gaza border against the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
A visit to Türkiye by Israeli President Isaac Herzog in March, followed by visits by both foreign ministers, helped warm relations after more than a decade of tensions.
Lillian described ties between Türkiye and Israel as “relations that can contain differences” and said that there are several subjects on which the countries agree to disagree.
On the appointment of ambassadors, Lillian said that no date was set as the process remains unclear in terms of whether it will be a political nominee or a career diplomat and due to the fact that Israel is currently led by an interim government.
Therefore, the charge d’affaires said Türkiye and Israel may not appoint their ambassadors at the same time.
“Because of elections, the process might be delayed in Israel.”
Lillian, however, stressed that “even the decision in principle to bring back ambassadors is an important step in this continuation of a very positive tendency that we have seen throughout this year.”
Lillian further said that the Turkish ambassador would submit his/her letter of credentials in Jerusalem, however not indicating whether east or west Jerusalem.
Noting that the two countries have held several high-level phone calls and bilateral visits, Lillian underlined that relations between Türkiye and Israel have been ongoing for almost 75 years without interruption.
“These are historical relations. There were phases in which the representation was lower but relations were never completely broken.”
Highlighting that the rapprochement process between Türkiye and Israel includes also agreements, Lillian said that besides the diplomatic channel, cooperation in security is also ongoing as was demonstrated amid the recent increased Iranian threats toward Israeli citizens.
In June, Israel urged its citizens to avoid Istanbul or return home if already there, sharpening a May 30 advisory against travel to Türkiye citing an Iranian plan to kill or abduct vacationing Israelis. However, Turkish intelligence thwarted attempts at attacks and made several arrests within this scope.
When asked whether Iran has been a motive in normalizing ties with Türkiye, Lillian said that although there are several factors that affected the initiation of the process, it is mainly a bilateral process.
“I think that Israel and Türkiye see eye to eye on the threats of Iran to regional security. I think that no country would have allowed a third country to operate terrorist cells against tourists. The decisiveness of Turkish authorities to go against these threats was very impressive and we are very thankful for it,” Lillian added.
She stated that Israel is also objecting to the JCPOA, a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, that is trying to be revived in negotiations. “It is promoting Iran’s capabilities and ambitions to be a nuclear power country. We believe that it would not serve the common goal of peace and stability in the region.”
Describing Türkiye and Israel as “victims of circumstances,” Lillian said that the main motivation behind rapprochement was to try to “turn the wheel back to a situation in which both countries, who are historically major players in the region, cooperate.”
“The mutual interest dictates both countries to go back to relations in which dialogue can be achieved,” she said, noting that internal processes and elections should not disrupt ties.
“If we judge from numbers, this year is going to be a very successful year in tourism and Israeli tourists coming back to Türkiye,” Lillian said, adding that for around 10 years Israeli citizens hardly came to Türkiye.
“No matter what our political relations are, throughout the years, the people-to-people relations were always very powerful. Israeli tourists really longed to come back to Türkiye and numbers speak – we have seen an increase of almost 300% from last year’s tourism,” she said, adding that the number is likely to increase further.
“Bilateral tourism has a huge potential like many other sectors and the fact that Israeli airlines are going to come back here is very important news for tourism and for mutual economic ties as well as trade.”
Touching on areas of cooperation, Lillian said that the potential is enormous and that the bilateral trade volume almost touched $8 billion last year while both countries rank in the top ten of countries when it comes to trade.
“We are going to have very soon the Joint Economic Committee to meet in Israel for the first time since 2009 and we will see visits of economy ministers of both sides among others,” she continued.
‘Growing ties with Muslim world’
The repairing relations can also be seen in a broader context, the charge d’affaires elaborated, saying that Israel has been for some time now mending ties with the Muslim world.
“It would have been unacceptable to imagine a situation in which the first Muslim country to recognize Israel – namely Türkiye – and such an important leader in the Muslim world such as Türkiye not joining this trend,” Lillian said.
The normalization of ties with Türkiye comes two years after the Abraham Accords, which saw relations normalized between Israel, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.
Türkiye also launched a process of regional normalization in 2020 to repair ties with estranged rivals, making overtures to Egypt, the UAE, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“It would be only natural to have Türkiye back into this circle because it was the locomotive that pulled the train for so many years,” Lillian emphasized, saying that she is very glad that relations and the dialogue between leaders have reached the level seen today.
‘Hamas office, main obstacle’
Highlighting her optimism about relations, Lillian also acknowledged that there are ongoing obstacles with the Hamas office in Istanbul, which Tel Aviv expects to be closed.
The Hamas resistance group has ruled Gaza for 15 years since seizing power in 2007 and has fought four wars with Israel. While it is viewed by Israel and Western countries as a terrorist group, many Palestinians on the other hand view the group as freedom fighters resisting Israel’s 55-year military occupation of lands the Palestinians want for their future state.
A Hamas official recently voiced that the group is against the normalization of ties between Türkiye and Israel.
‘Solution to Palestine problem, direct talks’
On the Palestinian question, Türkiye has frequently voiced that better ties with Israel could help facilitate finding a solution to the crisis. During a joint press conference with Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas in the capital Ankara this week, Erdoğan said that “Our Palestinian brothers also express that these steps will contribute to the solution of the Palestinian issue and the improvement of the situation of the Palestinian people.”
Türkiye has said there will be no change to Ankara’s position toward the Palestinians despite the normalization efforts with Israel.
Lillian, however, ruled out a third party getting involved in the process.
“I can only hope that a solution of the Palestinian issue is going to be found but I can assure you that Israel’s position on this matter has not changed. Israel thinks that the only solution is direct negotiations between the two sides, any involvement of third parties of course should be coordinated with both sides,” she said, adding that Israel has not seen a willingness to negotiate from the Palestinian side in the past two years.
The closure of the Hamas office in Istanbul would be a contribution by Türkiye to the process, Lillian said and emphasized that the international community should pursue steps to bring the sides back on the negotiating table.
Support for EastMed continues
Speaking on the East Med pipeline, a planned subsea pipeline to provide natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe, a project strongly opposed by Türkiye, Lillian said that Israel has never turned its back on the project but that prospects for cooperation with Ankara on energy would be explored in the later stages.
In January 2022, Erdoğan announced that Türkiye was ready to cooperate with Israel on a gas pipeline project in the Eastern Mediterranean. Following the 2010 crisis, Israel created a strategic alliance with Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, two actors with long-standing acrimony toward Türkiye, and in recent years held regular trilateral meetings and conducted joint military drills. The trio was part of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum established in 2019 with other states, including Egypt and Jordan, without Türkiye. In 2020, Israel, Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration signed the EastMed deal for a pipeline to ship gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe, triggering objections from Ankara.