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Turkey vows to protect Israeli lives as foreign minister visits

Turkish security officials reportedly foiled a plot by Iranian intelligence to target Israeli tourists in Istanbul
Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu shake hands during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, on 23 June 2022 (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Izmir, Turkey

Turkey has vowed it will never allow attacks against Israeli tourists on its soil, as the country's foreign minister visited Ankara on Thursday.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu's comments came in the wake of reports in Israeli media that Iran was planning to target Israelis in Turkey for either kidnap or assassination.

Cavusoglu told his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid that there should be no concerns over the issue.

'We will never allow such revenge and terror attacks against Israelis in our country'

-  Mevlut Cavusoglu

“We will never allow such revenge and terror attacks against Israelis in our country,” Cavusoglu said during a presser.

“Necessary messages have already been given [to those who are responsible],” he added, a clear reference to Iran.

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Lapid, the Israeli foreign minister and upcoming prime minister following the dissolution of the Israeli parliament, thanked the Turkish authorities for their close cooperation against the threat, saying that he wanted his citizens to be able to enjoy Istanbul and Antalya’s shores without fear.

“We have complete appreciation for the Turkish government for this professional and coordinated activity”, Lapid said.

“Iran is behind these attempted terrorist attacks. Intelligence leaves no doubt about it. This is a clear violation of Turkish sovereignty by Iranian terror. We are confident that Turkey knows how to respond to the Iranians on this matter."

Israeli officials have anonymously been telling Israeli media for the last two weeks that Tehran had been organising attempts to kill or kidnap Israeli tourists in Istanbul in response to the assassination of Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, a member of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Turkish media reports on Thursday said that Turkish intelligence and police last week detained a suspected assassination team allegedly working for Iranian intelligence.

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The security forces also seized four pistols and two silencers, according to reports. Turkish news wire IHA said the eight-member team had been using rental houses and a hotel as residences and some of them were sent to Turkey under the guise of education and business.

Ankara has been careful not to become part of the long-running fight between Israel and Iran. However, Turkish sources familiar with the issue said that the targeting of the Israeli citizens was a clear red line.

“Iran knows that this is absolutely unacceptable and everyone knows what will happen if any Israelis are hurt in Turkey,” one of the sources said.  

A senior Israeli security source, speaking to Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, said that Turkish authorities informed Israel in advance about the Turkish press reports on the Iranian assassination team and Tel Aviv did not object.

The senior security source said that the arrest of the alleged Iranian cell was an important development but the threat was still there.

“There is more than one squad,” the source alleged.

Iranian state TV reported on Thursday that Hossein Taeb, head of the IRGC intelligence unit, had been removed from his position.

Just days prior, Israeli media had said he was behind the plans to kill or kidnap Israelis in Turkey.

Deepening cooperation

Although Turkey was the first Muslim-majority state to recognise Israeli in 1949, relations between the two countries have fluctuated over the past two decades.

In 2018, when Israeli forces killed dozens of Palestinians taking part in the Great March of Return protests in Gaza, Turkey recalled all of its diplomats and ordered Israel’s envoy out of the country.

However, a year of silent Turkish and Israeli intelligence cooperation has convinced the Israeli government that Turkey is a rational actor that acts upon its interests, rather than ideology.

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Ankara believes that certain operations, including the foiling of attempts on Israeli lives in Turkey and elsewhere in the region, showed tangible evidence that it could deliver and has the resources to satisfy its own security needs without outside support.

Experts also believe Turkey and Israel found value in their relationship and incentives to come closer during events first in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 and then in Afghanistan in 2021.

In March, Israel's President Isaac Herzog met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, in the first visit by an Israeli head of state to Turkey since 2008.

Cavusoglu said on Thursday that the two countries were going to work on deepening economic ties and energy cooperation.

“We have decided to begin the process of reappointing the ambassadors to each capital,” he said.

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