The diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 led to downgrade the diplomatic relations; to having a chargé d´affaires rather than an ambassador. During the Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, relations between the two countries reached a new low. In this sensitive time, Amira Oron, a veteran diplomat, was appointed as the new chargé d´affaires at the Israeli Embassy in Ankara. She witnessed the improvement of the relations and at the end reaching the long waited reconciliation agreement which led both countries to appoint ambassadors for the first time in six years. We talked with Amira Oron the difficulties and opportunities encountered working in Turkey, the relations between Turkey and Israel, her love for Turkey and for Besiktas football team.
You were appointed as chargé d’affaires in a very sensitive time. What were your expectations coming here to Turkey and how it turned out?
I was appointed on January 2015. In my opinion, the fact that Turkey agreed to receive me, was a sign that we can move on. Because I am a minister, I am quite a senior diplomat, not a second secretary. They knew it and still they were happy to receive me. It was before we knew that there will be a big progress forward that arrived by the end of 2015. I came with the notion that we should prepare the atmosphere for upgrading the relationship. This was my mission; putting everything into place, giving good atmosphere to our counterparts, the Turkish side. Whoever we meet, we stated that sooner or later the upgrade will arrive. We should push very hard for that, by giving positive content to our relationship. Positive content means doing more in economy, in trade, in culture. We had some very nice events, very good delegations. We were working to show us and the Turkish side that we can and we should work together because it is for the benefit of both sides. I think we succeeded in that, me and of course our marvelous team in the embassy. We got very positive reactions from the Turkish side. Because of other things that happened in our immediate environment of the Middle East the upgrading took place. But we prepared the way, with no mistakes whatsoever, building confidence with our interlocutors. At the end, everything turned out very positive and good.
Economy is a remarkable part of the relations. Even in the worst days, the trade figures increased and even doubled. How do you explain this? Can we rationalize this with ‘business is business’?
I think it is more than just ‘business is business’. Yes, you are right we see it in the numbers. In the end of 2014, mutual trade was very high; 5.4 billion Dollars. It says it all. If you remember 2014 was one of the hardest years for our bilateral relations. 2015 however, ended with 4 billion. This reduction has nothing to do with we did not have ambassadors or anything like this. It is because Israeli volume of global export was reduced, because the price of the oil and the products of oil were decreased. But the share of Turkey in this volume stayed the same in 2014 and 2015; it was 2.4.
What were the factors that encouraged the business world to continue when the diplomatic ties were so damaged?
There are some factors that helped us continue doing business. One of them is that business communities from both countries know each other, feel very confident and secure to work together. So we could proceed. I think it has something to do with the cultural climate. We are similar and we can really talk and understand each other. Both economies are complementary; we are not competing but working together. To give you an example, Israel is an economy more of high technology. Turkey is a very powerful economy, an industry of very high capability of production in volumes, in quality. So it can go together very well. The geographical proximity really helps. If you send something from Israel to Turkey, it comes in one day via sea. We also have several agreements that support this commercial cooperation; prevention of double taxation, free trade agreement, investing in R&D… Of course the governments were very pragmatic, and understood that this should be kept going because we have very good commercial ties and cooperation. I think this also prevented our political relations to fall down completely on the ground and it stayed elevated from the ground on a low diplomatic presentation. And now thanks God we can put it up.
It was tourism that suffered the most from the deterioration of the relations…
For Israelis Turkey used to be the number one destination for summer vacation. Everybody loves Antalya. Israelis cannot say Antalya, they say Anatalya. They love coming there but unfortunately the last two years we saw a reduction because of terror and other things. The numbers were very high. We hope to go back there. Istanbul is our gate to the world. Many Israelis are passing through Istanbul airports, Ataturk and Sabiha Gokcen, on their way to the world. Turkish Airlines (THY) is the number one foreign company in Israel. Many Israelis are enjoying its services. All of this is saying that we understand how we can benefit from each other and we appreciate this.
There are a lot of daily flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul, I think eight, right?
Yes, eight. Most of them are THY, we have also Pegasus of course.
There was a security issue with El-Al and it halted its flights to Turkey. Are there any developments in that subject?
El-Al has to reach an agreement for security package to enable to operate in Turkey again. I hope in the near future they will come and negotiate it again and maybe they will find a solution.
During the turmoil in the Middle East, starting with the war in Syria, Israel gave permission to Turkey to use it ports for export. Does this cooperation continue?
When Syria became impossible to pass for land transportation of Turkey, Israel suggested and opened a land corridor, for a period of time. This means the goods came in ships from Iskenderun to Haifa. In Haifa they disembarked, they crossed Israel, passed through the terminal between Israel and Jordan, and went to Saudi Arabia. This route was open for a while, not in big volumes but it was a possibility. There are some difficulties in operating it, nothing to do with Israel but more on the receiving side; Saudi Arabia. We wish and we hope we can put more effort to revive it again.
After the reconciliation agreement, can we expect a ‘strategic wedding’ on natural gas between Israel and Turkey?
The issue of gas is essential in the future relations of Turkey and Israel. It is the new component in our relations. With this new chapter, we opened a new spectrum of cooperation which is gas and energy. We are looking forward to that. We give a lot of importance to it. It is not by coincidence that the first minister to arrive to Turkey after the reconciliation was our Energy Minister Mr. Steinitz. We believe that gas was also the incentive to get to the agreement, to the decision to upgrade our relations. It is not the only factor but it helped. Both countries can benefit from it. Israel wishes to sell its gas and is looking for investors to come and to take out the gas from the bottom of the sea. We also need a big market for that and Turkey is a good market. Turkey is also a hub, a bridge for energy to Europe.
And there is the Cyprus issue that goes hand in hand with this…
We are aware of the Cyprus issue. If this issue is solved, it will be easier for us to operate this project.
How about military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries, especially with ISIS threat in our proximity?
Israel and Turkey are sharing a lot of interests in some topics. We look at some threats and challenges the same way. Syria is one of them, ISIS is another one. Iran is one of them as well. Iran is a big threat to Turkey, to Israel and to the Arab world because it pushes itself to the Arabic Sunni world, activating terror and extremism. They are supporting Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups. Therefore of course we can share understanding and common interest on that with Turkey. About Syria, both of us are neighbors to Syria. We are very concerned with what will be the future of Syria. We do think that Syria should stay as one political unit; maybe the configuration will be different. I believe Turkey sees it the same way. ISIS is a terror organization that threatens and attacks unfortunately also Turkey. We are threatened as well. So we have many reasons to cooperate and reach very common understandings in many issues. For intelligence and military cooperation you need confidence, a lot of confidence. We have to build it. It will take some time. But I believe with sincere dialogue it might happen, in the past we use to have it.
Palestinian issue and especially Gaza is the sensitive spot in Turkish-Israeli relations. If something happens in Gaza, how will this affect the relations?
According to our past experience I say it might affect. It will not be a good development. It will be very unfortunate as it might not affect in a positive way.
How was your relation with Turkish officials? They were absent in Israeli national ceremonies in Ankara or Istanbul and you were not invited to some receptions. I know that you were invited for the first time to an iftar dinner during the last Ramadan…
The last Ramadan we were kindly invited by the Prime Minister Yıldırım. A year before that we were not. But we were invited to all official ceremonial events. We were invited on October 29th to the palace to greet the president in this very important day. This year I was personally invited by the president and I am very thankful. I got all the cooperation that I needed from my interlocutors in foreign ministry and other ministries. We had very good meetings, especially economic meetings. We enjoyed very good and professional cooperation. I can mention an incident, the terror attack where three Israelis were killed. We got all the cooperation from the highest level from the Turkish side. When I go around the country, I meet governors and mayors, I face no problem. I think it was very thoughtful and right decision made by Turkish establishment to let me work and to let me meet people. This way I could send my impressions and my reports to Jerusalem and tell them; “Things are fine. Let’s proceed, let’s do whatever is necessary to finalize our agreement because we can work very closely with the Turkish side.” I think this message was received by Jerusalem and we see the outcome. I am very happy.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed you during the Republic Day ceremony. Your conversation with him hit the headlines. So we become curious, what were you talking for so long?
He invited me. When I shook his hand, I presented myself of course, he was very nice. This was the third time that I met him and shook his hand. He confirmed that I will come to the evening reception, very nice. It was something personal, not to me, to Israel, to invite us. Yes, it was seen on TV. I understand that Israel gets a lot of attention in the public sphere of Turkey. We have to understand it. We have to appreciate it and we have to take it to our side, to use it in order to transmit positive messages and to become friendly again. I give interviews to whoever asks me to. This is very important for me. Whoever wants to meet me, I am glad to do it. I am helping whoever comes to me, in no matter what. This is the only way. We have to bring back our friendship, the trust between us.
How do you feel when you see some Turkish newspapers that always present Israel as the enemy, as the scapegoat? Do you do something about it?
I think we should try to deal with it and maybe to meet these people, the editors-in-chief, to have a dialogue with them. To present to them our point of view; what we do, how we do, why we do, why Israel is taking this kind of decisions. Maybe they don’t like it and that is why they are writing against it. But from the very beginning, to accuse Israel without knowing the facts, it is a pity. Therefore, I think we can try to establish a dialogue.
Do you have a plan to do that?
I will definitely offer that and advise it. Unfortunately, I will not precede my work here. I will advise it to my successor, the ambassador Mr. Na’eh. It is not a secret that there are some people with certain perceptions against Jews, against Israelis, against the Zionist movement. I also saw it in the Arab world. Most of my career was with the Arab world so I know the thoughts and the perceptions that dominate some sectors in that world. They don’t know us and they have this kind of prejudice. We have to be very careful with prejudice, with images. Turkey is suffering of bad image in some sectors in the world. I am very sad for that because Turkey is a marvelous country. People, whatever they see in the news, they have in their minds from school, from their parents, from whatever they got when they were children, keep on using it without checking the reality and the facts. I wish it will change but yes we are aware of that.
What is the one thing that you will miss from Turkey?
I will miss the hospitality very much. Turkey is an amazing country when it comes to hospitality. Very kind and very warm people. I will miss the beauty of Turkey. But most of all I think I will miss the people.
Let’s talk about Besiktas. I know that you are a big fan of Besiktas…
Besiktas is my favorite group, I admit it. I like them very much. I support them. It was an amazing experience for me because I really witnessed the fact that football in Turkey is another religion and it is very positive because it is sports. In my country there are women who follow sports, but here I see more in stadiums, shouting, being happy and one of them is me. I joined this culture, this phenomenon and I enjoyed it very much. I was not watching football before. I was watching basketball because Israel is much stronger in basketball. But then I came here and I saw this three amazing top league groups.
Why you did not choose Fenerbahce?
Fenerbahce! I was told it is the enemy, I am joking of course. I chose Besiktas. My friends were telling me the background of this group initiated in 1903, a long tradition of football, of sports. This group is also part of Turkey, Turkish culture, independence… so I found it nice to support them. I saw the arena; I met Mr. Fikret Orman, very impressive man. But this does not say that the other groups are not great, of course they are.
What is your next mission?
I don’t know. I think I will stay for few more months here and I hope I will get my embassy to become ambassador somewhere else. Maybe I will have the chance to be the ambassador here in the future. I am looking forward to it. It will be a great pleasure and honor for me.Karel Valansi Şalom 7 December 2016