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Eitam: We Have To Respect Our Differences, The Last Decade Showed Us That

Acting Head of Post of the Consulate General of Israel in Istanbul, Ehud Moshe Eitam started his position in March 2019 in a very delicate time not just for Turkish-Israeli relations but also due to the pandemic. Once close allies, relations between Israel and Turkey have been strained for over a decade following the Cast Lead Operation in December 2008. Diplomatic relations were restored in 2016, but two years later, Turkey recalled its ambassador and asked Israel´s to leave in protest of Israel´s response to rioting on the Gaza border. Only after the historic visit of Israel´s President Isaac Herzog to Ankara in March 2022 did the two sides announce that they would be restoring full diplomatic ties, which picked up pace in 2022. Eitam witnessed the improvement of bilateral relations, which in the end reached the long waited normalization. We talked with him about the difficulties and opportunities encountered working in Turkey, the future of Turkish-Israeli relations, and his plans for the future, following his retirement from the ministry of foreign affairs.

You were appointed as consul general to Istanbul in a very sensitive time. What were your expectations coming here to Turkey and how it turned out?

Indeed, I arrived in a time when dialogue between the governments hardly existed then and the general political atmosphere was not favorable. On the other hand, the cultural activity was rather vivid and the commercial exchange was big in volume and on the rise. I also knew that on both sides there were people and circles who valued the significance of the relations between our two countries. So my mission was to try to maintain and encourage the positive side in the relations while mitigating the risky aspects. We estimated at the time, that at least two to three years would pass before a positive political change would take place. At the end, the above expectations of ours were realized. Working in a strained political atmosphere was at times not easy, but less than three years later (including the pandemic period) the normalization process surprised me in its comprehensiveness and the rapid pace it took, exceeding my expectations.

These were the “professional” expectations. However as far as the personal sphere is concerned, I knew (based on previous visits here) that I was coming to one of the most beautiful destinations in the world; friendly people, rich and diversified heritage and of course warm Jewish Community. Also here my expectations were more than realized.

During your tenure, how was your relations with Turkish officials? Could you get a rendezvous when you wanted/needed?

As you may guess from my first answer, I met a cautious approach when trying to set meetings, especially with high officials. But then too, we often had good cooperation with the working and municipal levels, and at times even with senior ones especially in emergency situations. Of course things changed rather speedily and dramatically for the better when our diplomatic relations started moving in the right direction.

They were absent in Israeli national ceremonies in Ankara or Istanbul and you were not invited to some receptions. Is there any change in this respect following normalization of bilateral relations?

The truth is that we did not hold large ceremonies neither in Ankara nor in Istanbul during the previous years due to budgetary and logistical constraints which prevailed then, and the pandemic which followed. Türkiye is a country were protocol is observed rather strictly and I was invited to many ceremonial events. Our cultural activities were usually well attended. Again, the normalization of the bilateral relations improved the invitations and attendance to a level which usually exists between two friendly nations that share many common interests.

You are here for almost four years. What is the one thing that surprised you the most in Turkey?

This is a difficult question I was not prepared for... Almost unfair, as Turkey is full of surprises even to more experienced expats than myself. Choosing one is a hard mission. But I shall mention two with your permission, and both concern the human attitude. One is the tolerance among different groups of the population. I witnessed it upon my arrival in a concert of a famous Israeli musician who is very popular here. Already then he was able to fill a central concert hall in Istanbul, with heterogeneous groups of youngsters, conservative and secular alike, all waited patiently in a long line after the concert, to have a selfie with him (knowing he is an Israeli). It also proved me once again the power of culture in uniting the hearts of the people.

The other heartworm surprise was the magnitude of compassion of the Turkish people to streets animals. I do not remember seeing it anywhere. Of course we can also speak of the extent of the similarity of our two populations, and the richness of the Jewish heritage and community life here, which both surprised me in their scope, but I find the first somehow anecdotal phenomena above more surprising, very touching and a wonderful reflection of the Turkish society.

What is the one thing that you will miss the most from Turkey?

Again a merciless challenge. I shall miss many things, but since I have to confine myself to two: the friendly and smiling atmosphere everywhere, and the beautiful Boğaz (Bosphorus).

But to be frank, although I did not attend the synagogues here frequently enough, I shall certainly miss them. The Jewish people togetherness, the homelike feeling, the respect to Israel and myself and their beauty cherished my spirit and helped me pass some difficult times I experienced during my tenure here. This is also the place and opportunity to thank the community for all what they did for me here. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

How do you see the future of Turkish-Israeli relations? Having in mind that the Palestinian issue is the sensitive spot in relations…

I am very optimistic. The number of years that our official relations were not good is heavily superseded by the number of the good years. It has some very good reasons: common strategic interests in the region, completing economies, shared history, similarity in culture, geographical proximity. We do have our differences but I think that the last decade showed us that we have to respect them without turning it into a dead-end story. The Palestinian issue is there, but also the Palestinians will be better served by good, sound relations between Israel and Türkiye. The recent normalization of the relations established a multilevel and constant dialogue that should foresee, cushion and -where possible- mitigate the differences in difficult times and it has already proven itself on different occasions in the recent year.

Economy is a remarkable part of the relations. Even in the worst days, the trade figures increased and even doubled. What were the factors that encouraged the business world to continue when the diplomatic ties were so damaged?

Economy has always been a very strong foundation of our bilateral relations. Even when the diplomatic ties were not at their best, our economic-commercial relations have continued to grow. When I was posted to Türkiye around four years ago the volume of bilateral trade between countries was around 5 billion USD. In 2022 it has reached 9 billion USD and 10 billion USD for 2023 seems within our reach. I think the first reason for this phenomenon was the long acquaintance between our business sectors. The second is the traditional policy of the two governments not to interfere with the business sector and even to support the exchange. The proximity makes the shipment cheaper and rapid which is very important especially in times of interrupted supply chain. We also emphasize the fact that Turkish and the Israeli economies are completing each other rather than competing. Besides it, now we emphasize the fact that the two economies present opportunities to each; Türkiye has well educated, talented and skilled labor force and Israel has the technological expertise in various different fields including cyber, health sciences, agriculture, water and climatech which propel two business communities to further future cooperation.

What is your plan for the future now that you are retiring from the ministry of foreign affairs?

I was away from my family for four years. My entire family (including my wife and children) remained in Israel and for almost two years could not travel here due to pandemic. So my first priority will be to compensate them and myself a bit over this separation. Then I would like to continue being active and contributive. Türkiye and my friends from the community is a very good option. I would love to use and share the multifaceted experience and knowledge I accumulated about Türkiye-Israel potential and promote it. It will also allow me to visit this wonderful country and community more often. You see I become nostalgic even before leaving… 

Karel Valansi, Şalom Gazetesi 5 April 2023


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