istanbul, turkey – Israel’s top diplomat arrives in Ankara on Thursday amid shrill warnings of an Iranian plan to kill or kidnap Israeli tourists on Turkish soil.
His visit also comes as Turkey seeks to improve ties with Israel and Iran.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is among several Israeli officials telling travelers to abandon plans to visit Turkey and has instructed those inside the country to return home as soon as possible or take shelter in their hotels.
While the Israelis have praised Turkish cooperation in thwarting alleged Iranian operations – which they say are revenge for Israel’s killing of senior Iranian security officials in recent weeks – Turkish officials have been more restrained.
Ankara’s only word on the allegations was a Foreign Ministry statement last week that said Turkey “is a safe country and continues to fight terrorism”.
“Turkey is trying not to take sides in the Iran-Israel conflict, but it is also giving a strong message that it will not allow this type of operation – such as the Iranians are allegedly planning – on its own soil,” Suha said. Cubukcuoglu, a geopolitical analyst from Istanbul.
Noting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, visit Ankara on Wednesday, he said Turkey was “playing a balancing act” with the region’s three strongest powers.
Over the past year, Ankara has been repairing relations with several regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Also on its bridge building list are Israel and Iran.
Last month, Mevlut Cavusoglu was the first Turkish foreign minister in 15 years to visit Israel, following a March trip to Ankara by Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
Cavusoglu and Lapid paved the way for improving diplomatic, security and economic relations.
“Turkey and Israel are engaged in a normalization process that is advancing at a steady pace,” said Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
“Compared to the normalization process in 2016, which took less than two years, this time it appears that the sides have learned from the previous failure and have so far managed to avoid some pitfalls.”
More challenges ahead
Ties between historically close allies collapsed in 2010 when Israeli commandos killed 10 Turkish activists trying to deliver aid to Gaza.
Efforts to rebuild ties were derailed in 2018 when dozens of Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli forces.
Meanwhile, Israel has rebuked Turkey for supporting Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza.
Israel and most Western states consider it a “terrorist” organization – Turkey does not.
Ankara and Jerusalem face more challenges ahead, according to Lindenstrauss, such as potential outbreaks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also the collapse of Israel’s coalition government and rising tensions between Turkey and Israel’s ally Greece.
Turkish relations with Iran are more stable, according to Lindenstrauss, but the countries are rivals in several conflicts, notably in Syria and northern Iraq.
Iran-backed militias in Iraq, where Turkey launched its last military campaign against Kurdish fighters in April, have attacked Turkish bases in recent months, according to US intelligence.
Turkish and Iranian forces have also clashed in Syria, where Ankara is expected to launch a new incursion.
“Iran and Turkey have a very well-managed competition,” said Alex Vatanka, Iran program director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“There is competition going on all the time from Iraq, Syria, the Caucasus and even the Persian Gulf – Iran is watching with envy Turkey’s ability to make inroads in places like Qatar and, more recently, Saudi Arabia.”
He added: “You have Iranians carefully watching where this Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is going to see if this is aimed at them.”
Despite this, the neighbors are major trading partners, with trade reaching $4.77 billion in 2021, up 69% from the previous year despite sanctions on Iran and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Its citizens have enjoyed visa-free travel between the two countries for decades and Iranians are big real estate investors in Turkey.
“It’s a multifaceted relationship, there’s a lot of competition, but neither Turkey nor Iran want it to get out of hand,” Vatanka said.
Amid these complex diplomatic relations are Israel’s alarming allegations of Iranian agents hunting tourists to kill or kidnap.
Despite not providing any evidence publicly, the Israel National Security Council has raised the risk level for travel to Turkey, putting it on par with Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Iran.
The threat is thought to be linked to deaths such as the May 22 assassination of a colonel in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force in Tehran, which Iranian officials blamed on Israel.
However, in the war of words between Israel and Iran, the allegations are difficult to verify.
“I wouldn’t necessarily take what Iran and Israel say literally because there’s this intense competition between them,” Vatanka said.