Last year, Turkey and Israel restored diplomatic relations after a six-year hiatus, however, there are still ups and downs in the two countries' relations. During last month's Al-Aqsa crisis, harshly worded statements from both side increased the tension. Nevertheless, both countries are acknowledging the importance of each other and looking forward to deepening relationships. Israel's ambassador to Turkey, Eitan Na'eh, believes that countries and peoples do not have to agree on everything and sometimes it's part of their job to manage disagreements. Regarding the Al-Aqsa issue, Ambassador Na'eh said that Israel will always maintain the status quo and will secure freedom of worship at Al-Aqsa.
Ambassador Na'eh said that after the normalization of diplomatic relations, now is the time to build trust and confidence, increase dialogue and lay infrastructure, and he added that this is something diplomats and business people from both countries can do. Underlining that Turkey and Israel have always helped each other in times of need, the ambassador added that they are looking forward to develop relations with Turkey through respect for mutual interests and sensitivities.
Touching on the Leviathan gas project, Ambassador Na'eh said the project seems possible and feasible, while he emphasized that Turkey and Israel can enjoy cooperation not only in energy but in other areas too, whether it is the construction and infrastructure sectors or the high-tech sector.
Daily Sabah: How would you evaluate the current level of bilateral relations between Turkey and Israel after the two countries restored ties following a six-year-long period?
Eitan Na'eh: After the normalization of our diplomatic relations this past year, we are now in the process of rebuilding. We are following the road map drawn in February during the visit of the Israeli undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since then, we have been continuing the dialogue through ambassadors and exchange of ministerial visits. The former Turkish minister of Culture and Tourism visited Israel in February, then Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz visited Turkey and met with his Turkish counterpart, Berat Albayrak, on July 12. At this time, we are looking for the next round of political dialogue, to be headed by the undersecretaries of the ministries of foreign affairs. We have set our priorities; now we know the other's priorities. An economic delegation from Turkey went to Israel as well. I think there is a lot we can do in the economic field. It will be, I believe, the engine of growth in our relations. One of those areas of cooperation would be energy of course. If and when an agreement is signed, that will actually give the push necessary to develop our economic relations in other spheres too. It will boost relations.
Countries and peoples do not have to agree on everything, but what we do is to manage relationships and sometimes manage disagreements as well. One major disagreement is about Hamas, which is seen by Israel and the international community as a terror organization. Terror is terror, in Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Barcelona, Madrid, Brussels or Paris. We have much to learn from each other, and it is rather a two-way street. It is up to us - diplomats, business people and the people themselves - to make it possible.
Turkey is an important country in the region, so is Israel, and we are looking forward to developing our relations with Turkey through respect for mutual interests and sensitivities. When I first came to Turkey, I said that we helped each other in times of need, as had been the case five centuries ago, in the 1930s and the 1990s. We came to help Turkey after the 1999 İzmit and Düzce earthquakes, and Turkey came to Israel's help when fires struck my country. That is what relations are all about, and we need to continue developing them with great care. Our people benefit mutually from relations developing between our countries. Neither a Turkish nor an Israeli citizen would ever be hurt by our relations being further developed. We both are harmed and both our interests, damaged when we get apart. In today's world, countries in the Middle East need each other. One cannot stand up alone any more in the face of the many challenges and threats that the world faces today, such as terror or cyber attacks, if to mention but a few. Some other problems we all face, know no borders.
D.S.: The Leviathan gas project that aims to transport natural gas from the Leviathan reserve to Europe via Turkey is one of the hot issues on the agenda. What is the latest about this project?
E.N.: Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz made our position clear during his recent visit to Turkey. We have gas and want to sell gas; you need gas and want to buy gas. Having few suppliers, you want to diversify. Both the minister and president said publicly that it is important to diversify and secure the sources of supply and that the security of gas supply itself is just as imperative. These are important, well-defined statements. On the other hand, we have stated before that we want to export gas to Turkey. We have already started exporting gas to Jordan and want to expand it to Egypt. We will also be supplying gas to the Palestinian Authority. There are two projects, two pipelines that we look into and consider for our gas export. We have enough gas and can supply Europe with gas. Initial studies show that it is feasible. It was not so 8 years back; it looks more feasible these days. Europe wants to buy more gas, the Balkans need gas. It can all happen but will take some time for it is a much more complicated project. But these are the options, the possibilities. We are talking about exporting approximately 10 bcm of gas to Turkey already.
It is up to Turkey to decide on the issues of quantity and so forth. The price is to be negotiated. It all depends on the commercial negotiations. I do not have the exact numbers to share with you at this time. By the time the project is finalized, we may be looking at different numbers. But the potential is there; the interest is there. Europe needs gas and wants to diversify the continent's gas supply, so does Turkey— it all seems possible and feasible.
D.S.:Do you think the Cyprus issue may become a hindrance in establishing a deal?
E.N.: We are still trying to solve our own conflict so I am afraid I cannot offer any advice to Turkey. We hope that negotiations between the sides will bring the Cyprus conflict to a resolution in accordance with international law. There is much to gain from an agreement as such. People would only benefit from it. We think that such an agreement would expedite the gas deal.
It will boost other areas of cooperation as well, so we are waiting and hoping for a good solution that would satisfy both sides.
Regarding economic relations, which sectors have more potential for further cooperation?
We can enjoy cooperation not only in energy but in other areas too, whether it is the construction and infrastructure sectors or the high-tech sector. The early signs of mutual interest are there already. A big delegation from TIM/Turkey paid a successful visit to Israel recently and met with our economy minister. I think it was more of a 'familiarization visit' to get some impressions, to look into different sectors and get some ideas to be able to scale the potential. I think the delegation returned to Turkey with very positive impressions. Next was a delegation of young industrialists who came back with exceptionally good impressions. They focused mainly on the high-tech sector and met with different players in the Israeli high-tech eco-system. They had some very positive experiences. We will follow it up.
Israel is getting new technologies developed in its own 'Silicon Valley,' second only to the U.S. It is time to bring these sectors together, to configure mutual interests and overcome the few years of disconnect and of our business sectors looking in other directions. That did happen as well; one has to accept it and move forward in order to build-up the relations. It is not to be achieved over night.
We also hope to cooperate in the field of aviation. There are more than 100 THY flights between Turkey and Israel a week, but no Israeli airlines fly to Turkey. If you want to encourage tourism, there are steps that need to be taken by Turkey. We are still waiting for the Turkish side to sign the agreement on aviation.
There are some important sectors in Israel's economy that also rely on imports from Turkey, such as the wood industry, machines, and electronics. When it comes to the petrochemical industry, Turkey imports heavily from Israel. Another sector that I think would be important is renewable energy, alternative energy, for instance. There is a lot to do in this respect.
Agriculture is another area to enhance relations and there is already a lot of cooperation going on in this field. Israeli irrigation products are widely used in Turkey and most importantly, producers that use them are happy. During my Adana visit, I met with the governor, the mayor as well as some big farmers, and these people told me that they want to cooperate even further with Israel. Thus, a delegation from Adana is going to visit Israel in the second week of September for the International WATEC Conference.
The decision to normalize has long been taken and ambassadors exchanged. Now is the time to build trust and confidence, increase dialogue and lay the infrastructure - something we, diplomats and business people from both countries, can do.
Even though the number of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey has been gradually increasing, which steps can the two countries take in order to culturally bring the Turkish and Israeli people together?
We are diplomats, and we encourage people as well as business circles to exchange visits. When it comes to people-to-people contact, I serve as the Ambassador of the State of Israel. My interests lay in improving Israel's image in Turkey by way of culture too. We have held and plan to hold cultural events in Ankara at least once a month. We are able and willing to bring cultural groups of all sorts from Israel to Turkey. They are always very well received in Ankara. On our embassy's Facebook page, one can see what we have done thus far. One example would be what we did here during our national day reception. Also, ballet dancers from Israel are to cooperate with those from here, Turkey, to stage a joint-piece together next year hopefully. It would be a first of its kind. But leaders can encourage people to go and see each other as well; they can make it easier for the people to feel welcomed. Leaders, diplomats, politicians can ensure that all institutions are open -- all ways and means of cooperation are open. Thus, a cultural cooperation program is also waiting on the Turkish side to be signed. And I have already mentioned aviation. All these things are to happen shortly. We are doing our best in this regard.
The Al-Aqsa issue constantly leads to escalated tensions between Israel and Palestine as well as Israel and Turkey. What can be done to prevent further spats in this regard?
I think that the terror attack against the Israeli policemen on Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount was unprecedented. For the first time in 50 years, Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount, Haram al-Sharif was used as a launching ground for a terror attack with people using weapons and killing by shooting policemen from behind. Surveillance videos show that the policemen were looking outside to welcome those who come to pray, and then they were attacked from behind, shot in the back. This is the first time in 50 years since the murder of the King of Jordan on the steps of Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount in 1952. ... Let me give you some numbers from 2015. Three million Muslims came to and prayed in Haram al-Sharif - 3 million. Do you know how many Christians came to visit the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif? 300,000. And can you guess how many Jews? 10,000. Freedom of religion is well secured, and we will maintain freedom of religion, the freedom to worship in the holy places of Jerusalem. If people are breaking the rules, we will stop them.
It is a holy place for all three religions. Jerusalem is holy for all three religions. And all three religions are sensitive about holy places. I would like to emphasize – and please pass on the message to your readers – that Israel will always maintain the status quo and will secure freedom of worship. Only in places where Israel is in control are there such guarantees. Look at the Middle East: Many churches and world heritage sites are heavily damaged. Thousands of buildings and religious places have been blown up by savages in Syria and Iraq.
Prime Minister Netanyahu said it loud and clear: The State of Israel will maintain the status quo on the Temple Mount. We promise that we will continue maintaining it. The status quo will be maintained, freedom of religion, of worship will be maintained, and people will be able to pray safely in a secured environment. That is important.
Do you believe that the two-state-solution to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem is realistic? Does Israel have any pre-conditions to accept this proposal?
First of all, I think it is possible. When there is a will, there is a way. But the key issues are mutual recognition, effective security arrangements and direct bilateral negotiations without preconditions. All are clear and necessary, but let me explain what we mean by recognizing each other's rights. The Jews have a right to self-determination. Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. The Palestinians have not yet acknowledged this. You cannot make peace with somebody who does not recognize your rights. If you do not recognize my rights, how can I possibly live with you? You have rights, and I have rights. My rights are equal to yours. It is fair. I think all is up to one precondition, one inalienable right that is not given by anyone but is natural, and that is the Jewish peoples' right to self-determination. This is no different than that of the Palestinians. Israel is to be acknowledged as the homeland of the Jewish people. That is at the root of the conflict. Refusing to do so is the major obstacle. So that is the basic principle. We tried to negotiate, with contributing efforts of several American administrations. Yet, the negotiations should be direct where all the issues are set on the table.
It is not a matter of pointing fingers. We will continue our efforts. Hopefully, we can reach a solution equally good for us all. Both people can certainly benefit from and flourish with the future agreement.
From your perspective, how can Turkey and Israel cooperate to solve the Syrian crisis and fight against Daesh?
We have very clear policies regarding Syria. We do not want to intervene in the Syrian civil war. We have treated Syrian people, wounded civilians who came to our border and asked for help. We have also helped Syrian refugees in Europe; Arabic speaking Israeli doctors treated Syrian refugees in Greece and across the Balkans. We have just donated laptops to help with Turkey's effort to ease the Syrian refugee crisis. We can do more. Your country has a long-time tradition of opening your country to refugees. You did it 500 years ago, you did it 80 years ago, and you are doing it again today. We will not allow the civil war in Syria to spill over to Israel. We will not allow Iran to transfer game-changing weapons to Hezbollah. We said very openly before, it is a red line. We will not allow Iranians or Hezbollah to set foot near the Israeli border. We said it clearly, and we also said we will not allow violations of our security along the border.