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How the Iranian Threat Could Undo Progress in Newly Restored Israel-Turkey Ties

Ankara balks at an Israeli travel warning, which Israel assumes won't be enough to seriously damage relations, following a series of high profile visits this year

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Israeli President Isaac Herzog and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a press conference in Ankara, on March 9, 2022.
Israeli President Isaac Herzogand his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a press conference in Ankara, on March 9, 2022. Credit: AFP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Turkey expressed disappointment and frustration over the unusual travel advisory that Israel’s National Security Council issued on Monday.

Just days after its foreign minister visited Jerusalem in a bid to improve bilateral relations, Israel was undermining Turkey’s image as a safe tourist destination and damaging its plans for a big influx of vacationers this summer.

In an effort to soften the blow, the Israeli Foreign Ministry informed its counterpart of the expected advisory in advance, while defense officials gave their Turkish counterparts details about the information behind the advisory, which related to possible Iranian attempts to attack Israelis in Turkey.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, last week.Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

Israel’s assumption is that urging Israelis to cancel their Turkish vacations won’t harm bilateral relations, because Turkey would also prefer to avoid terror attacks on its soil, with all their economic and security ramifications.

Unlike previous Iranian cells, which tried and failed to attack Israeli diplomats and businesspeople, the targets this time are ordinary tourists in cafés or hotels – far easier targets than a well-guarded diplomat, and a tactic that has succeeded in the past. But Israeli officials don’t think the anticipated attacks are directly connected to last week’s assassination of a senior Iranian officer, saying that planning for these attacks began before then.

Israeli officials have also sent instructions in recent days to Israeli tourists already in Turkey, warning them to be alert to strange faces and suspicious conduct by service providers, and not to accept enticing invitations from strangers.

Will the travel advisory make Israelis cancel their Turkish vacations? Senior officials are split on this question.

The defense establishment would love to see a wave of cancellations, because it’s not clear how long the threat will be in force – mere hours or many weeks. But most travel advisories have minimal impact. Thousands of Israelis have ignored warnings about travel to Sinai for years, and even before the latest advisory, Israeli travel warnings routinely ranked Turkey as a 3 on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 representing the most dangerous countries.

Though the NSC hinted at Iranian efforts to attack Israelis in some of Turkey’s neighbors as well, Turkey was the only country it mentioned explicitly, indicating that the council had received precise information. Turkey “is a high risk for Israelis these days,” the advisory said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to improve relations with Israel in recent months have been met by Israeli demands to thwart Iranian and Hamas terror against Israelis in Turkey. Both President Isaac Herzog, who visited Ankara in March, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, at last week’s meeting with his Turkish counterpart in Jerusalem, warned about Hamas’ entrenchment in Turkey. Israel has demanded for months that Turkey take action against Hamas terrorists living there as a condition for improving the relationship.

But Dr. Nimrod Goren, president of Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, argued that improved relations would actually encourage greater cooperation on this issue. “Civil aviation and tourism are among the first issues that Israel and Turkey said they would work to promote in the framework of the warming relationship,” he said.

“Both sides would presumably prefer for the travel advisory to prove to be a response to a specific threat and for it to be eased by the start of the summer vacation,” he continued. But even if this doesn’t happen, Israel and Turkey have reportedly cooperated in the past on outside threats to Israelis in Turkey, “and the warming relationship could assist in their coordination and in providing a joint response to the current threats.”

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