Istanbul Bombing: An Unpleasant Reminder of What Israel and Turkey Share

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An airport employee mourns those killed at Ataturk airport international terminal in Istanbul, June 30, 2016.
An airport employee mourns those killed at Ataturk airport international terminal in Istanbul, June 30, 2016.Credit: Ozan Kose, AFP

The killing spree carried out by three terrorists at Istanbul’s main airport on Tuesday, a few hours after the signing of a reconciliation agreement between Turkey and Israel, served as a reminder of a common denominator still linking the two countries.

The attack, apparently perpetrated by the Islamic State group, obviously has no relation to the deal. And yet, the murder of at least 42 people in a complex operation, involving shooting, grenades and suicide vests, leads to two conclusions.

First, Turkey, even more than most Middle Eastern or European countries, has become the target of several terrorist organizations holding diverse agendas. Second, Israel, which shares some of these risks with Turkey, can divulge some of the methods it has developed and the intelligence it has accumulated, as it does with other countries that share the struggle against international terror.

Turkey, like other European countries, is interested in Israeli know-how. In Turkey’s case, the regime has no problem with taking Israeli measures to more extreme levels – acting against terror without the threat of court action and human rights groups such as B’Tselem – to paraphrase the words of Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s, referring to then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The attack in Istanbul, the latest in a series of attacks attributed to ISIS in recent months, is seen as retribution for Turkey’s joining (albeit belatedly) the international campaign being waged against the Islamist organization. In the past, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought he could play all sides without paying a price: Assisting Sunni rebel groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria, while at the same time flirting with ISIS. This allegedly involved buying oil from it and turning a blind eye to the passage of volunteers from Turkish land into the caliphate declared by the organization in northeastern Syria. At the same time, he allowed movement of civilians escaping the horrors of the fighting in Syria and Iraq through Turkey, en route to countries in the European Union.

Ultimately, things turned sour for Erdogan. President Bashar Assad held onto power in Syria; the Kurds expanded the areas under their control along the Syrian-Turkish border in a manner that worried Ankara; and Erdogan hit trouble with Moscow after the downing of a Russian fighter plane. That issue was also resolved this week, following a Turkish apology. And under American pressure, Erdogan finally agreed to let U.S. warplanes take off from the Turkish air base in Incirlik, in their attacks on ISIS. Revenge was swift, coming on top of the lethal terror attacks carried out in Turkey by the Kurdish underground group PKK.

ISIS is now particularly keen to transfer the campaign to the territory of its adversaries, given the increasing bombing raids in areas under its control and the risk that it may lose its grip there entirely. The attack in Turkey follows ones in France and Belgium, encouraging radical Muslims to initiate attacks, inspired in part by ISIS – even in the United States.

Israel also has reason to be wary, since such attacks, which capture media attention worldwide, could be repeated in the southern part of the Golan Heights or along the border with Egypt in Sinai.

The morning after the massacre in Istanbul’s sprawling airport – a preferred transit hub for cheap flights taken by tens of thousands of Israeli tourists – the cabinet met to ratify the deal with Turkey.

The final ratification was a foregone conclusion. The road leading to it was less clear. Right-wing ministers in the new coalition – Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked – were against the deal; Moshe Kahlon, Arye Dery, Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan came to the meeting without declaring their positions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found support, as always, from Yuval Steinitz, this time reinforced by Yoav Galant, who was promoted from observer status to a full member of the security cabinet after Lieberman entered and Moshe Ya’alon departed.

According to sources present at the meeting, Galant argued that opposing arguments to the agreement were negligible in comparison to the historic benefits it brought. Israel needs good relations with Turkey similar to its stronger relations with Egypt and its delineation of common interests with other Sunni states in the region, including Saudi Arabia. While Iran and ISIS are polar opposites in the regional battle, Galant said, Israeli-Turkish relations have a positive potential. The price, he argued, was marginal. Israel had preserved its key positions in this agreement. It will be the one to dictate what goods enter Gaza and will supervise their security checks, while Turkey committed to improve the economic situation in the Strip. The agreement was ultimately ratified in the cabinet by seven votes to three.

As cabinet members were arguing inside, families with loved ones missing in Gaza were demonstrating outside. Their pain is understandable, but attempts to link present circumstances to the massive release of prisoners that enabled Gilad Shalit to return home are unconvincing, since Hamas is holding the bodies of two dead soldiers, not live ones. Anyway, it’s understood that Turkey has only limited influence on Hamas.

Against the backdrop of the families’ protests, the cabinet decided for the first time, based on a demand by Gilad Erdan, to hold a serious debate about the Shamgar Commission’s report.

The commission was convened during the negotiations to release Shalit and recommended a harsher stance in negotiating the release of prisoners and kidnapped citizens, in order to prevent the massive release of security prisoners in the future. Supporters of the report claim that the Shalit deal, in retrospect, created public hysteria that negatively impacts the operations of security forces. The release of 1,027 prisoners in exchange for Shalit in 2011 led to an extreme interpretation of the Hannibal Directive, applied by the Israel Defense Forces during the course of an abduction attempt. This procedure permits the killing of a missing soldier or the harming of Palestinian civilians in an IDF attempt to foil the abduction. This may be connected to a few instances of light fingers on triggers during the latest wave of terror, based on the assumption that a dead terrorist won’t be released in any future deal.

Supporters of the deal argue that its adoption will make things easier in future negotiations. Netanyahu is more doubtful. The adoption of the Shamgar Commission’s report by the cabinet is akin to tying lead weights to Netanyahu’s feet. No prime minister will willingly accept any restrictions on his freedom to maneuver, not to mention the death sentence imposed on the next person to be abducted by Hamas or Hezbollah (assuming these groups take the government’s decision seriously).

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