Spy Games

10.21.13

Inside Israel’s Frenemy Diplomacy With Turkey

Turkey may have ratted out Israeli spies to Iran in 2012, but that didn’t stop Netanyahu from mending fences with Turkey’s Erdogan. Eli Lake on the surprising outreach.

Last week, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius revealed that in early 2012, Turkey gave sensitive information about Israel’s spy operations to Iran—specifically, the names of up to ten Iranians who had been meeting with Israeli intelligence officers in Turkey.

To many people in the intelligence community, the news was seen as a grave betrayal. “The fact those ten spies were burned by the Turks by purposely informing the Iranians is not only a despicable act, it is an act that brings the Turkish intelligence organization to a position where I assume no one will ever trust it again,” said Danny Yatom, a former chief of Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad, in an interview.

A retired senior CIA officer who spoke to The Daily Beast compared the incident to the betrayal of the Cambridge Five, a network of Soviet moles that provided highly sensitive intelligence to Moscow at the dawn of the Cold War.

All of which makes it especially surprising to some that Israel appeared to move on from the incident so quickly. This is evidenced by the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized a diplomatic outreach to Turkey to restore ties even after he learned about the alleged security breach. (While U.S. officials confirm the details revealed by Ignatius, the Turkish government has denied them.)

Israel believes Iran is determined to build a nuclear weapon, and it has justified its intelligence activities inside the country as crucial to delaying and sabotaging its enemy’s nuclear program. In January 2012, before the Turks informed Iran about the Israeli spy network, a magnetic bomb killed Mostafa Ahmadi Rohsan, an Iranian official in charge of procurement for the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. It was believed to have been carried out by the Mossad. And one U.S. official said Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was furious about the assassination.

Yatom, who did not confirm whether the Mossad had anything to do with Rohsan’s death, said the agency has traditionally informed its Turkish counterparts about meetings with its spies on Turkish soil. He said if Turkey were to give Iran any details about these meetings, it would compromise Israel’s intelligence operations against Iran.

The Mossad will never trust their Turkish counterparts again.

There is some evidence to support that view. In March 2012, Time reported that Israel had curtailed much of its covert activities in Iran. The Tehran Times in April of 2012 reported that Iran’s intelligence ministry had announced the arrest of 15 agents allegedly working with Mossad.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu in 2012 continued to try to mend diplomatic ties between the two countries. For example, Israeli and Turkish envoys continued to participate in a group of Syria’s neighbors to plan how to secure that country’s chemical weapons if the regime collapsed. Beginning in 2012, Israel also made arrangements with Turkey for trade shipments to Jordan and other countries in the Arabian Peninsula to travel through Israel and not Syria, where the civil war had worsened, according to Israeli diplomats familiar with the situation.

Netanyahu also later in 2012 instructed Joseph Ciechanover, an Israeli diplomat, to continue to probe for areas in which Turkey and Israel could cooperate. Ciechanover represented Israel on the U.N. panel known as the Palmer Commission that examined a 2010 incident when Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, a flotilla that was attempting to break the embargo of Gaza. Nine activists on the ship were killed. Erdogan expelled Israel’s ambassador from Ankara in September 2011 after the report was released.

But the two countries’ relations weren’t severed altogether. “There were always contacts between the Turkish and Israeli side as part of the Palmer Report process and after this process. There are diplomats who unofficially interact with other diplomats and business people with close links to both governments. It is not that relations were completely ruptured after September 2011,” Kemal Kirisci, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution and an expert on Turkey, said. 

One Israeli diplomat familiar with the Israeli and Turkish diplomacy in 2012 said no real high level breakthroughs between the two sides happened until late August of that year. But in the fall of 2012, Ciechanover laid the groundwork in quiet meetings with Turkish envoys in Geneva. Israeli and Turkish security officials also met in November of 2012 in Cairo following a brief skirmish between Hamas and Israel.  

The diplomacy in Geneva put in motion Netanyahu’s public apology to Erdogan at the end of President Obama’s visit to Israel in March 2013, according to Israeli diplomats. At the time, Netanyahu said on his Facebook page that he made the gesture in part because of the deteriorating situation in Syria. Turkey has provided support for the rebels in Syria, while the Assad regime is supported by Iran.

Another factor for Netanyahu in his diplomacy with Turkey has been his desire to stay on good terms with Obama, according to some observers. Elliott Abrams, who served under President George W. Bush as a senior director at the National Security Council for the Near East and North Africa, said, “I cannot believe that Netanyahu thought this effort with Turkey would work. I think like the current negotiations with the Palestinians, his main motivation is to remain very close to President Obama and the U.S. government.”

Despite Netanyahu’s apology in March, Turkey has not accepted a new Israeli ambassador in Ankara. The Turks have asked Israel for more compensation for the victims of families killed in the Mavi Marmara incident. Meanwhile, U.S. and Israeli officials say the Mossad will never trust their Turkish counterparts again.