- President Erdogan announced on January 18, 2022, that Israeli President Isaac Herzog will visit Turkey in March and that he sees the visit as a positive development and a new stage in Turkish-Israeli relations.
- Israel must be cautious about restoring relations with Turkey. This is the time to demand that Erdogan close the office of the Hamas military wing in Turkey, which orchestrates terror attacks against Israel.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog spoke with Turkish President Erdogan on February 6, 2022, and wished him health and a full recovery from his COVID-19 infection.
The two talked about the possibility of meeting soon. While further details were not disclosed, Erdogan told the Turkish media that Herzog would visit Ankara in March.
Erdogan also said Turkey and Israel would soon discuss transporting Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey.
After the Israeli tourist couple Mordi and Natalie Oknin — arrested on a false charge of being Mossad agents — were freed from a Turkish prison, it was clear that Erdogan would exact a price from Israel for their release, at a time convenient to him.
Erdogan has declared a new foreign policy and has begun to repair his regional relations with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and now Israel.
Over the past decade, Israel’s relations with Turkey have been volatile and marked by diplomatic crises. In 2010, Israel thwarted a Turkish attempt to breach the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, sending IDF naval commandos to commandeer the Turkish ship Marmara at sea. In 2016, an agreement was reached to normalize the two states’ relations. However, in 2018, after the killing of Palestinians rioting on the Gaza border to protest the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador from Ankara and recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv.
Erdogan has now decided that the time is right to improve relations with Israel and make it pay up for the Oknins’ release. The Turkish foreign minister called Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to inquire about his health after Lapid’s infection with COVID-19. Erdogan himself announced that Herzog would visit Turkey and even called him to offer his condolences following the passing of his mother.
Erdogan has made a strategic decision to upgrade ties with Israel. For him, the time is now more opportune because Benjamin Netanyahu is no longer in office, there is a new U.S. administration, and Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is not on the agenda.
This month, Erdogan is planning on extensive diplomatic activity. He is slated to visit Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Ukraine. In addition, Russian President Putin was meant to visit Ankara, which is now unlikely.
Erdogan is making a great effort to end the regional disputes he created and normalize relations with Egypt, the UAE, and Israel.
In an interview with Turkish television, he said that “Israel has taken some steps involving cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey, for its part, is also prepared to take the necessary steps.” He views Herzog’s visit to Turkey as opening “a new page in Turkish-Israeli relations.”1
Erdogan would like to speed up the normalization of ties with Israel and discuss delivering Israeli gas to Europe through Turkey.
Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood
Erdogan is a senior representative of the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood movement. He knows that the Brotherhood and Hamas will not like the thaw between Turkey and Israel, to put it mildly, but his political survival and the pursuit of Turkey’s interests are at the top of his order of priorities. He has already clandestinely expelled Muslim Brotherhood leaders from Turkey who fled there from Egypt after President Sisi’s rise to power, and to mend fences with Egypt he has stopped the incitement against the Egyptian president on Turkish TV channels. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are keeping quiet, not voicing a word of criticism about Turkey and its attempts to restore ties with Egypt and now, also with Israel.
Erdogan wants to survive as a leader. Turkey’s economy has deteriorated, the Turkish lira has lost more than 40 percent of its value in less than a year, inflation has risen by more than 30 percent, and Erdogan’s political power in the Turkish street has declined.
From Israel’s standpoint, this is the right time to again pressure Erdogan to close the Hamas military office in Istanbul.
The Hamas Branch in Istanbul
The Hamas military wing has a large office in Istanbul partially operated by freed prisoners from the 2011 Shalit deal who were expelled from Israel’s territories. Some of their activity involves orchestrating terror attacks in the West Bank and attempting to recruit Israeli Arab students studying or visiting Turkey to the ranks of Hamas, Hizbullah, and Iran.
For example, on June 12, 2014, three Israeli teens were abducted and killed by Hamas on the basis of orders transferred by its headquarters in Istanbul.
On October 22, 2020, the London Times reported that a secret Hamas cyberwar and counter-intelligence unit was operating in Istanbul separately from the main Hamas office, based on international intelligence sources.2 The clandestine unit is subordinate to the Hamas military wing and reports directly to senior Hamas official Samakh Saraj, who, in turn, takes orders from Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza.
According to the Times’ intelligence sources, the clandestine unit was also tasked with obtaining dual-use materials that Israel prohibited from entering Gaza for fear that Hamas’ team for development and technology would use them for weapons production.
The secret unit, which was supposedly unknown to Turkish authorities, also spies on other terror organizations and Hamas members suspected of disloyalty.
The likelihood that Turkey will sever its ties with Hamas, which periodically entangles Turkey with the international community, is not high. Turkey, under Erdogan, is the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood axis in the Middle East, and the Brotherhood is the parent movement of Hamas.
Hamas got Turkey in trouble when Saudi Arabia discovered in 2019 that funds were being laundered and smuggled to the military wing in Gaza with the help of two large money-changing offices in Istanbul. More than 60 Hamas operatives were charged with “supporting and financing terrorism” and belonging to “a criminal terrorist entity.”3
Senior Hamas official and one-time Hamas representative in Saudi Arabia Muhammad al-Khudari, and his son Hani, were arrested. A Saudi court convicted the Hamas operatives and meted out sentences of up to 15 years.
According to press accounts, they were arrested on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after Israel and the United States provided Saudi intelligence with detailed information about their activity in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Saudi authorities have deported more than 100 Palestinians from the kingdom, mostly on charges of supporting Hamas financially, politically, or through social networking sites.4
In charge of the Hamas office in Turkey is Salah al-Aruri, the organization’s second-in-command, who serves as head of the Hamas military wing in the West Bank and the liaison with Hizbullah and Iran. However, according to sources in Gaza, it appears that the clandestine branch in Istanbul is a personal project of Gaza Hamas leader Sinwar and that he has used it mainly for the purposes of the military wing there.
After ten years of efforts, Israel has failed to get the Turkish authorities to close down the Hamas military wing in Istanbul. According to Hamas sources, the organization runs a sophisticated surveillance center in Istanbul that monitors media and communications within Israel and provides intelligence to Hizbullah and Iran.
This center is run by Abd al-Hakim Hanani, a henchman of Aruri. The latter, for his part, was forced to leave Turkey because of American-Israeli pressure5 and now resides in the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut, from which he runs the office in Istanbul.
Israeli intelligence sources say there is evidence that the Hamas branch in Turkey recruited and provided weapons to Sheikh Fadi Abu Shkhaydam of the Shuafat refugee camp, who last November murdered Israeli civilian Eliyahu Kay in the Old City of Jerusalem.
President Herzog’s Visit
President Isaac Herzog’s office confirmed on February 15, 2022, Erdogan’s announcement about Herzog’s visit to Turkey. Meanwhile, Erdogan’s top adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, and Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal will visit Israel for discussions in preparation for the visit.
Did Erdogan use the media to announce Herzog’s visit prematurely? At that point, could Israel and the president have said no?
Israel must be very wary of providing Erdogan with gifts and especially facilitating a coveted visit to the White House for him. This is the flip-flopping Turkish president who, as we have seen in the past, can turn on Israel at any moment and change his skin like a chameleon.
Erdogan’s courtship comes as Israel has expanded its strategic relations with Cyprus, Greece, and Egypt.
Israel needs to ramp up diplomatic pressure on Turkey to close the Hamas office in Istanbul, which directs terror activity in the West Bank. Before that happens, there is no reason to rush to upgrade relations with Turkey.
That office violates both Turkish and international law. Erdogan allows it to keep operating despite Israel’s demands to close it, and despite the incriminating material Israel has given to Turkish intelligence. Turkey remains a state willing to provide a haven to terror organizations.
* * *