Shai Cohen: "The ability to communicate has been proven very successful in the most difficult moments"
The diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 led to downgrade the diplomatic relations. During the Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, relations between the two countries reached a new low. In this sensitive time, Shai Cohen was appointed as the new Consul General of Israel in Istanbul. Approaching the end of his term, we discussed the present and the future of the Turkish-Israeli relations.
What were your expectations coming to Turkey, how it turned out?
What were your expectations coming to Turkey, how it turned out?
When I got my appointment in November 2013, the reconciliation process had begun already and the expectations were very high and an agreement was about to be signed. Then all of a sudden, the war in Gaza started and the things turned upside down. I was told by many people “don’t expect too much, it is going to be difficult the first few months...” But it was proven the contrary almost immediately. Except for few requests on my part for meetings, I was accepted right away, governmental and non-governmental. I was not only accepted to the meetings but received very warmly and openly in most cases. I understood that the general attitude was to separate the political disagreements and discrepancies and to keep moving on with the relations in the soft areas like economics, commerce, trade, culture, academy and so on and so forth. The ability to talk to each other and communicate has been proven very successful in the most difficult moments. And that was for me encouraging because I understood that there is a very big potential. Take the example of trade volume.
Interestingly, trade survived all the impasse…
Between the years 2010 and 2014, the trade volume increased from 2.8 billion to 5.6 billion dollars. I thought a lot about it back then. It was contradictory to bilateral situation. There are two answers to that in my opinion: one, interest of the businessmen and the private sector. Two, there is a real understanding on both sides that the political disagreements and discrepancies are things that has to be resolved and discussed but that the relations have to keep on going.
You and Mr. Eitan Na’eh are very vocal these days with TV and newspaper interviews, articles published in Turkish. But in general Israeli diplomats were not so vocal when Israel was presented as the enemy or when there were anti-Israel or even antisemitic attacks. Is this a policy or you tried to reach the Turkish press to explain what was going on in Israel but the doors were closed?
First of all, I would not say that the doors of the press were closed, we had very good contacts with most of the Turkish media. We are doing a lot of work behind the scenes. It is not always necessary or wise or useful to give an interview or to react to something that is going on or to comment to a rhetoric. In diplomacy in general, let alone here in Turkey, it is more useful and wiser to operate behind the scene and this is something that we do on a daily basis. We believe that we achieved the best solutions this way. We are trying to create a good infrastructure for the bilateral relations. You can take an episode like Al Aqsa or Gaza or things that have created tension or reactions in the media and you can isolate them and deal only with these issues, this is a choice. We sometimes prefer to stay behind the scene and do the diplomacy rather than commenting immediately and give the issue more power. Instead we do many other things that are positive. For example, we organize cultural events, like the music festival ‘Sound Ports Tel Aviv-Istanbul’, we organize seminars, we bring lecturers about Israeli technology and innovation, we visit many corners of the country. We try to reflect the potential of the relations, to show what Israel is about and not necessarily react to specific negative issues that from time to time appear on the media. And the appreciation of the Turkish side for this attitude is very high. I think that the cooperation we received thanks to this kind of attitude is much better than what we could have achieved if we quarreled all the time through the media. I don’t believe the media is always a good place to solve problems. Sometimes yes, sometimes you need to react. If you look at the interviews we gave Na’eh and myself, we are not talking about disagreements, we are not trying to look for where we were attacked and retaliation. We are looking at the positive agenda and positive agenda is what should be promoted by any diplomat.
I asked this question because I think that the Turkish public perception of Israel is not so good. The media has an important role in this and almost every day there is a new conspiracy theory about Israel and the Jews…
I can only say that we are very sorry for that and personally I am very sorry for that. It is true that there is a perception. I tend to believe that the perception is one thing, but the true feelings by at least big part of the population is another thing. I can judge that only from the relations that we are having in the business sector, cultural, academic, media, NGOs… I can tell you that there is a very big openness towards Israel. When you are exposed to Israel, when you visit Israel, when you do business with Israelis, when you exchange cultural or academic relations and you get to know what Israel is about, then the perception is changing. This is my belief. And this is why we are working very hard in almost every sector that you can imagine in Turkey, to expose Israel to those sectors. Media has a very big power over public opinion. We believe that the media can also play a positive role enhancing the relations between Israel and Turkey.
You were appointed as consul general in a very sensitive time. One year following the reconciliation agreement, how can you define Turkish-Israeli relations?
In soft powers which are economy, trade, investment, innovation, cultural, academic, civil society, we are growing day to day. There is a receptiveness on both sides to further enhance these relations. I believe, the proximity between the Israeli and Turkish peoples due to tradition, history, geographical proximity, cultural similarities, is helpful to work successfully. We are now facing trade volume which is on increase. The numbers went down a little bit last year because of the decrease in oil prices but the volume is increasing. Innovation is the first priority that we have fixed for this year and the coming year. Innovation is a generic word that compasses high-tech, start-ups, incubators, techno parks, and R&D. All of these are important for the relations because in a globalized world, everybody understands that you have to invest in innovation in order to see fruits in the future, it is not enough to sell and buy any more. We have started to witness big transactions in the diamond sector. Financial services, tourism, money exchange are also growing. Look at the flights. We have 14 flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul on a daily basis plus in the summer season Antalya, Marmaris and Bodrum adds to the list.
How about intelligence and military cooperation between the two countries?
We are going step by step in order to rebuild confidence and for this you need time. This is something that has been agreed upon in the dialogues conducted in Ankara, few months ago between both governments. It takes time with military and strategic issues. But we are moving very fast in all of the soft powers. For example, we are dedicating 30 to 50 percent of our resources to cultural affairs. We have very successful exchange in this area.
Can we expect a natural gas agreement soon? It was said that it may be signed at the end of this year?
Minister of Energy of Israel Yuval Steinz was here two months ago in July, he had a meeting with Minister of Energy of Turkey Berat Albayrak. They were discussing the project of exporting to Turkey and building a pipeline from Leviathan to Turkey. “Prophecy was given to the fools” President Shimon Peres quoted that from the Bible so I will not try to be a prophet here. Negotiations are still going on between the two countries.
The Al Aqsa issue, Gaza are the sensitive issues in Turkish-Israeli relations. How do you foresee the future of the relations?
We understand and accept and even cooperate with the Turkish aspirations to assist the Gaza strip, to rebuild some of the Gaza strip, to provide humanitarian assistance, medical assistance and sending building materials. There are understandings and sort of cooperation in terms of goods that are coming to the port of Ashdod, downloaded and then transported by land to Gaza via Kareem Shalom crossing point. Very high percentage of the aid to Gaza is provided by Turkey. Israel is enabling that and cooperate in order to make it happen. This has to be separated from the support to Hamas. We have been claiming that Hamas is a terror organization. And not only Israel but also the U.S., E.U., Egypt, Saudi Arabia recently, and other states in the Middle East. Hamas is an obstacle to the peace process in the Middle East. Hamas did not really change its attitude towards Israel. In its charter from 1987 there is an article calling for the elimination of the State of Israel. This is something that we have to bear in mind because we don’t want another possible round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas influence and imply what is happening in Gaza and of course to impose on the relations between Israel and Turkey. Israel has no conflict with the Gazan population per se. The Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by Mahmoud Abbas is the representative of the Palestinian people wherever they are. This is our position and international community’s position. We believe that it should be dealt with PA and not with Hamas.
It is said that Assad and Iran are nearing the signing of a long-term agreement that would anchor Iran’s military presence in Syria and at the same time Israel has launched its largest military exercise in almost 20 years. Is a war with Hezbollah and Iran around the corner?
We hope not. We have to be prepared all the time. We don’t have the luxury of not preparing ourselves to the largest extent all the time. This has to do with military build-up, technology, exercises, and diplomacy as well. The most part of our efforts, except for the military preparations, are in the diplomatic sector. We don’t want to see Iran and Hezbollah take over and become hegemonic in Syria. Already it took control over Lebanon. Lebanon has a border with Israel and we have experienced wars with Hezbollah in the past. We don’t want to see this again, let alone when they are now deployed in some parts along the borders between Syria and Israel. The fact that Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, its long arm in that region, are anchoring more deeply their presence and their influence in Syria, the threat to Israel is higher. This is one of the redlines that we have posed regarding the situation in Syria. We are working very hard in the diplomatic area in order that this does not go further on. Hezbollah is the biggest military threat to Israel and not only to Israel. We are directly threatened by Hezbollah with over 100.000 missiles and rockets with ranges up to 700 km that covers the whole Israeli territory. More or less half of these missiles are operational, ready to be launched. We cannot allow ourselves not to be ready to a day that somebody there will decide to start launching those missiles and rockets. We are working also with allies in the international community in order to make sure that Iran is contained, monitored and even curtailed with its aspirations in the region. It is obvious Iran wants to increase its hegemony. I think the Middle East will be in big problem because it is a destabiliser for the whole region. We see ourselves as leader in keeping the Iranian issue on the international diplomatic table.
What are the areas of cooperation between Turkey and Israel in Syria, ISIS or any other conflict in the Middle East?
I rather not comment on that. Some of these issues are very sensitive. It is better not to comment or react to something which could maybe harm existing cooperation or future cooperation or different interests. I can tell you only one thing. Both Turkey and Israel share borders with Syria. As I always say, the real thing that separates Israel geographically from Turkey is Syria. And unfortunately the situation in Syria is declined and everybody wants to see a solution to the situation there, for the sake of security of nations such as Israel and Turkey, and also for the sake of regional stability. This principle should be perceived without any further details.
You have mentioned that the State of Israel had decided to donate a classroom equipped with the latest technologies to the immigrant Syrian children living in Istanbul. Is this promise fulfilled?
It is under process. There is a little bit of bureaucracy, technicalities, but the program is continuing as planned. It should happen very soon.
What do you feel that you have left behind you, in professional terms, here?
I came in a very critical moment for the relations. I was lucky to witness the reconciliation agreement signed one year ago and already the fruits of this reconciliation is in front of our eyes in all of these soft powers that I mentioned. I think that what I have been trying to do in the last few years here was to create very solid infrastructure for post-reconciliation. I think that I made very big effort to meet all the relevant people in all the relevant sectors that you can think of starting with the local authorities. I have a very good relationship with the governorship of many cities. Local municipalities, political or ex political exponents, leaders of the Turkish media which are all established in Istanbul, big companies and holding which most of them are also in Istanbul. We have today relations with the most important cultural institutions of the country. We have managed to cover many universities in and out of Istanbul. We have reached out to medical sector for cooperation. I had the dream and the belief that reconciliation would happen during my time in Turkey. The general idea was to establish very solid infrastructure. Now we see the fruits and everything can flourish thanks to this infrastructure. Back in May this year, we sent the biggest ever commercial delegation to Israel organized by TIM (Exporters Association of Turkey) and us together. There were 120 businessmen from the most important Turkish companies in that delegation. This would not have happened without the creation in advance of such a good infrastructure. My satisfaction after my mission here is related to this. I think that in my long career of 26 years, this was the most challenging, exciting and the most interesting. The only thing that I can hope is for these projects and endeavors to keep on going smoothly in the near future.
What is the one thing that you will miss from Turkey?
There are many things but the most important one is the true friendship feelings that I got from the people. I have been to many places, I served in few countries. Here I found a unique openness by the Turkish people. I am taking back with me very good and personal contacts that derived out of the professional interest at first. This was something that was beyond my expectations. I am very happy about it and I am a little bit sad to leave in this sense. I can tell you that the human warmth that I have been feeling here is something moving on the personal level. It is also very important in the characterization of the Turkish society in general. Hospitality is a value here. If I take something back with me to Israel, to remember and to cherish is all these good people and good friends that I am leaving behind here but not forever because I am sure that we will keep in contact in the future.