Israel-Turkey Ties Strained by Report of Spy Exposure

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JERUSALEM -- Persistently strained relations between Israel and Turkey have not been helped by a report that last year Turkey revealed to Iran the identities of up to 10 Iranians who had spied for Israel.

The Israeli government refused to comment Thursday on the report, but Danny Yatom, a former chief of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, told Israel Radio, "Assuming that this is true, this was an extraordinarily malicious thing to do."

A column published Wednesday on The Washington Post's Web site reported that in early 2012, the Turkish government made the disclosures about Iranians who had been meeting Israeli intelligence officers on Turkish soil. The column, by David Ignatius, said that "knowledgeable sources" called the episode a "significant" loss of intelligence and "an effort to slap at the Israelis," and that the betrayal had marred a 50-year intelligence alliance between Turkey and Israel.

The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said in televised remarks on Thursday that the allegations in the column were "without any foundation."

Turkey, which shares borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria, among other countries, once served as "a convenient place for Israel to work to reach people from hostile countries," Mr. Yatom said. But while there had been "outstanding" cooperation in earlier years between Israel and Turkey, Israel now is "not open with the Turks, as we were in the past," Mr. Yatom said.

He added, "We are suspicious of the Turks, that they relay information to Iran that could endanger us."

Turkey once ranked as Israel's closest ally in the Muslim world, and it took part in joint exercises in the Mediterranean with the Israeli and American Navies, and allowed Israeli jet pilots to train in Turkey's relatively vast airspace.

But relations began to sour over Israel's deadly three-week offensive against the Hamas militant group controlling Gaza in the winter of 2008-9. The strategic partnership weakened further in May 2010, when Israeli commandos met resistance when boarding ships seeking to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza, and eight Turks and an American of Turkish descent were killed. Turkey sharply downgraded its diplomatic and military ties with Israel in September 2011, expelling the Israeli ambassador after Israel refused to apologize for the deaths.

In December 2011, Israel canceled a $141 million contract to supply Turkey with an advanced aerial intelligence system. An Israeli official said at the time that the reason was Turkey's shifting allegiances in a turbulent region, which led Israel to fear that the delicate technology could end up in the hands of hostile governments, like that of Iran.

With Syria's descent into a bloody civil war underlining the enduring interests shared by Israel and Turkey, the United States urged these two important American allies to restore cooperation. When President Obama visited Israel in March, he brokered a reconciliation agreement.

As part of the deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel officially apologized for operational mistakes that led to the deaths in the blockade raid and promised compensation and a further easing of restrictions on Gaza. The sides were then meant to agree on terms of compensation, normalize ties and send envoys to each other's nations.

Israeli and Turkish officials held some meetings in the spring and issued a joint statement saying that a settlement was near. But the contacts were frozen in June when Turkey was convulsed by weeks of protests. Since then there have been no new developments.

A senior Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomatic situation, said that Israel very much wanted to renew the relationship but that in public statements, Turkish officials had added more and more conditions, like a demand that Israel accept responsibility for the deaths in the raid.

"It is as if the apology never existed," the Israeli official said. "We believe there are so many strategic interests that bind Israel and Turkey, such as Syria and Iran and other regional issues, and we should put this behind us. But the Turks don't see it that way."

Zeev Elkin, the deputy foreign minister of Israel, said that Israel's relations with Turkey remained "very complex."

"Not because of us -- we did not change our approach to Turks," he told Israel Radio. "The Turks took a strategic decision."

He added that "instead of moving in the direction of Europe," the Turks decided to seek leadership of the Middle East, "and they chose the anti-Israel card as an easy card to build up their leadership."

Still, Gallia Lindenstrauss, an expert on Turkey at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said there had been a decrease in tension between Israel and Turkey since the March apology and that private sector bilateral trade was continuing as usual.

Turkish exporters have also been using Israel as a trade corridor in recent months, with Turkish shipping lines docking in Israeli ports, then transporting goods overland to Jordan and other Arab countries in order to bypass the civil war in Syria.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 17, 2013 2:01 PM


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