Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apology to Ankra over the 2010 raid of a Gaza-bound flotilla is expected to pave the way for expanded commercial ties between Turkey and Israel, notably including the return of large numbers of Israeli tourists to Turkey.
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Before relations between the two countries soured following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead military incursion into the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009, and particularly the 2010 naval raid in which nine Turkish passengers died, Turkey was a favorite vacation destination for Israelis.
In the May 2010 incident, Israel Navy commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, one of the boats in a flotilla that attempted to breach the Israeli naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Despite the strain in relations in recent years, trade between the two countries has continued. Although Turkey downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel, it did not sever all commercial ties. Last year Turkey was Israel’s seventh-largest trading partner. Even most of the military supply contracts that Israeli companies had with Turkey were fulfilled. It now appears, however, that the government and the Defense Ministry will have to examine whether to resume the transfer of sensitive military technology to Turkey against the backdrop of that country’s ties with Iran and the rise of Islam in the Middle East.
According to the Israel Export Institute, the combined volume of Israel’s exports to and imports from Turkey, excluding diamonds, declined by 13% between 2011 and 2012. Bilateral trade was valued at around $3.5 billion in 2012, compared to about $4 billion in 2011.
Israeli exports to Turkey last year were valued at around $2.08 billion, while imports from that country came to $1.42 billion. The most significant drops between 2011 and 2012 were in the chemical sector and related industries, as well as the military sector.
In the first two months of 2013, however, Israel-Turkish trade rose 8% compared to January and February of 2012, making Turkey Israel’s sixth-biggest trading partner for the period. That trend is expected to grow as a result of the anticipated restoration of normal relations between Ankara and Jerusalem.
But some Israeli figures are sounding a cautious note with regard to the prospects of improving military-related ties between the two countries. This caution comes despite the fact that Moshe Ya’alon, who has just replaced Ehud Barak as defense minister in the new government, has been Netanyahu’s point man on relations with Turkey.
“In the defense establishment, there are differences of opinion and those who are wary over ties between Ankara and Tehran that could lead to Israeli technology slipping into the hands of Iran,” one military industry source said.
Defense Ministry sources said the close defense ties that prevailed before Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Turkey’s prime minister in 2003 have not returned. The ministry declined to comment on the issue of military sales to Turkey, saying it was not its policy to discuss such issues.
In the past four years Israeli tourists have for the most part stayed away from formerly popular resort destinations in Turkey such as Antalya and Bodrum as well as the urban offerings of Istanbul. By contrast, in 2008 half a million Israelis vacationed in the country.
The implications of improved ties has already prompted excitement in the Israeli travel industry.
“I would expect that after Passover, we will already begin marketing packages to Turkey,” said Ronen Carasso, VP marketing of the ISSTA travel agency. “We already expecting hundreds of thousands of [Israeli] passengers by this summer. It will be like a deluge.”
But Yossi Fattal, who heads the Israel Tourist and Travel Association, said the pace of the recovery would be slow and that the politicians would set the tone.
Even before Netanyahu’s apology on Friday, airlines based in Turkey had already added significant numbers of seats on flights to and from Israel for the Passover holiday week.
“In Israel there is demand for flights to Turkey, primarily among the Arab population and Russian [immigrants],” said Shai Fredo, CEO of KTA International, which represents a number of Turkish charter airlines. “Most of the passengers over the Passover season will be from the Jewish population, and after that from the Arab population, in keeping with [their] holidays.”
According to the Israel Airports Authority, in the first two months of this year about 85,200 people flew between Israel and Turkey, a 59% increase over January and February of last year.
During 2012 as a whole, 687,100 passengers traveled by air between the two countries. Many of those flying to Turkey from Israel continued on from Istanbul to other destinations, including in the Far East and North America.