Istanbul, Turkey – The top Israeli diplomat arrived in Ankara on Thursday amid dire warnings of an Iranian plot to kill or kidnap Israeli tourists on Turkish soil.
His visit also comes as Turkey seeks to improve relations with both Israel and Iran.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was among several Israeli officials who asked travelers to abandon their plans to visit Turkey and instructed those inside the country to return home as soon as possible or take refuge in their hotels.
While the Israelis have praised Turkish cooperation in thwarting alleged Iranian operations – said to be in retaliation for the killing of senior Iranian security officers by Israel in recent weeks – Turkish authorities have been more conservative.
The only word from Ankara on the allegations was the Foreign Ministry statement last week that said Turkey was “a safe country and continues to fight terrorism.”
“Turkey is trying not to take sides in the conflict between Iran and Israel, but it is also sending a firm message that it will not allow such types of operations – such as those the Iranians are allegedly planning – on its soil,” Soha said. Kupucoglu is a geopolitical analyst based in Istanbul.
Referring to the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, to Ankara on Wednesday, he said Turkey “plays a balancing role” with the three most powerful powers in the region.
Over the past year, Ankara has repaired ties with a number of regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The list of bridge construction also includes Israel and Iran.
Last month, Mevlut Cavusoglu was the first Turkish foreign minister to visit Israel in 15 years, following a trip by Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Ankara in March.
Cavusoglu and Lapid paved the way for improving diplomatic, security and economic relations.
“Turkey and Israel are engaged in a process of normalization that is moving forward at a steady pace,” said Galia Lindenstrauss, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
“Compared to the normalization process in 2016, which lasted less than two years, this time it appears that the parties have learned from the previous failure and so far have been able to avoid some of the pitfalls.”
More challenges ahead
Relations between the two historically close allies collapsed in 2010 when Israeli special forces killed 10 Turkish activists trying to get aid into Gaza.
Efforts to rebuild links were aborted in 2018 as dozens of Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli forces.
Meanwhile, Israel has criticized Turkey for its support of Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza.
Israel and most Western countries consider it a “terrorist” organization – but Turkey does not.
According to Lindenstrauss, Ankara and Jerusalem are facing more challenges, notably the outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the collapse of the Israeli coalition government and the rising tensions between Turkey and Greece, an ally of Israel.
Turkish relations with Iran are more stable, according to Lindenstrauss, but the two countries are rivals in a number of conflicts, most notably Syria and northern Iraq.
Iran-backed militias in Iraq, where Turkey launched its latest military campaign against Kurdish fighters in April, have hit Turkish bases in recent months, according to US intelligence.
Turkish and Iranian forces have also clashed in Syria, where Ankara is expected to embark on a new incursion.
“Iran and Turkey have a very well-managed competition,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“There is competition happening all the time from Iraq to Syria, the Caucasus and even the Persian Gulf — Iran is watching jealously of Turkey’s ability to make headway in places like Qatar and most recently Saudi Arabia.”
He added: “You have Iranians carefully watching where this Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is heading to see if this is targeting them.”
Despite this, the neighbors are major trading partners with trade reaching $4.77 billion in 2021, up 69 percent from the previous year, despite sanctions against Iran and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their citizens have enjoyed visa-free travel between the two countries for decades, and Iranians are among the top real estate investors in Turkey.
“It’s a multi-faceted relationship, there is a lot of competition, but neither Turkey nor Iran wants this to get out of hand,” Vatanka said.
Amid these complex diplomatic relations, there are Israel’s troubling allegations of Iranian agents looking for tourists to kill or kidnap.
Although no evidence was publicly presented, the Israeli National Security Council raised the risk level for travel to Turkey, putting it on a par with Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Iran.
The threat is presumably linked to the May 22 killing of a colonel in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force in Tehran, which Iranian officials have blamed on Israel.
But in the war of words between Israel and Iran, it is difficult to verify the allegations.
“I wouldn’t necessarily take what Iran and Israel are saying at face value because there is intense competition between them,” Vatanka said.